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Google's Tilt Brush Is The First Great VR App

Here's how a painting app is used to introduce users to virtual reality.

Google's Tilt Brush Is The First Great VR App
[Photo: Flickr user Keith Williamson]

When the HTC Vive headset goes on sale today, the virtual reality community has a challenge: A whole load of non-gamers who are eager to check out virtual reality, but haven’t necessarily logged in hundreds of PlayStation and Xbox hours. For those non-gamers—and everyone else—one of the most intuitive virtual reality apps created is there to help them explore their world: a painting app, of all things.

Tilt Brush is Google’s self-proclaimed app for "Painting in 3D space with virtual reality," comes bundled with the headset, and is the first great art app for virtual reality. Using the app and the controllers on systems like the Vive, users can create amazingly detailed artwork. It’s intuitive, intensely immersive, and does something funny… While a user plays around with the different brushes and pencils and zooms, they learn how to use the virtual reality controllers.

I tried Tilt Brush most recently at VRLA, a trade show for all things virtual reality, that took place in Los Angeles earlier this year. Tilt Brush was among a suite of virtual reality apps presented in a demo by Nvidia, a hardware firm heavily invested in the VR space. The painting app was the standout among the introductory applications; all it took was 30 seconds of explanation from the employee showing off the headset rig, and I was immediately creating art. It was swift, immersive, and altogether awesome.

What caught my attention was how simple it was to use, both in early demos I tried out and in the final version at the trade show. There weren’t any complicated rules to figure out or demonstrations to acclimate me to the virtual world. All it took to get me creating art in three dimensions all around me was a few words of instructions from someone who used the app before.

Building A World For Virtual Art

Tilt Brush isn’t the only app of its kind. There are several other competing virtual reality art apps such as Oculus’s Quill and Medium, but Tilt Brush has been both exposed to the largest audience and has—as of press time in early 2016—the widest availability.

Google acquired Skillman & Hackett, Tilt Brush’s creators and a company named after founders/Tilt Brush developers Drew Skillman and Patrick Hackett, for an undisclosed sum in 2015. Since then, the app has been increasingly presented as an introductory app for virtual reality applications.

"Tilt Brush, at its core, is a virtual reality painting application. It creates something anyone can use, intuitively, for kids, artists, and absolutely anyone," Skillman told Fast Company. "Within the first 30 or 45 seconds, anyone can start VR painting and making marks in space all around them. [...] It allows everyone to see how powerful VR is and how transformative it will be."

Tilt Brush’s strength, and its importance to the growing virtual reality industry, is that it uses non-gaming techniques to acclimate an audience of non-gamers to virtual reality—a field whose developers and early aficionados, I’ve seen from personal experience, tend to be the type of folks with large game collections on Steam and expensive TV setups to play Xbox One games on.

The idea of users painting and drawing using the physical space around them wasn’t part of the original mission plan, but something they discovered along the way. According to Hackett, earlier versions of Tilt Brush, although virtual reality, only allowed art to be made on two-dimensional planes. But then "There was a happy accident. Tilt Brush came out of an experiment with a virtual reality chess prototype, where we accidentally started painting the chess pieces in the air, and it was incredible."

Virtual Reality Training

Using art to teach the use of new technology is a behavioral engineering trick with old-school precedent.

When the earliest versions of Windows came out in the 1980s, there was an immediate need to teach users how to operate a mouse. Microsoft’s Paint was part of a suite of apps that taught users how to click and drag (Solitaire) and, later, to use two mouse buttons at once (Minesweeper). Users simultaneously had fun, created engaging art, and learned how to use a graphical user interface.

That behavioral aspect has also led Google to work with partners to offer Tilt Brush as one of the earliest games and products that introduce virtual reality to the public. One of these users is an unexpected pioneer in virtual reality: PepsiCo.

At this year’s NBA All-Star Game, Mountain Dew was demoing virtual reality headsets to the public in the festivities surrounding the game. And Tilt Brush was one of the primary apps they showed off.

According to PepsiCo’s Carlos Saavedra, "We were looking not just for things that haven’t been done, but things of very high quality. More importantly for us, Tilt Brush brought interactivity. A lot of virtual reality experiences are viewed from a more traditional perspective, but we wanted to give people the opportunity to experiment in an environment. Importantly for us as well, there are a lot of action points in the app."

Tilt Brush will be available to the public upon the HTC Vive’s launch today, and release for other platforms is expected in the future although there's been no confirmation yet from Google.

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