I’ll never forget the first time I made a snowman in VR. I was standing in front of three stacked spheres that were just begging for some coal eyes, a carrot nose, and a corn cob pipe. But after I scribbled chunks of carbon and vegetables onto his face, I realized something: All these lines I drew were actually floating a few inches out from his snowy skin, defying gravity in visual nonsense, like a face that just escaped a head.
As amazing as drawing in VR for the first time felt with Google Tiltbrush, it was also severely limited. Scribbling was easy! Creating real 3D objects that I might want to use anywhere else? Borderline impossible. Tiltbrush lacked all the tiny snappy, sticky, shapey algorithms that are so easy to take for granted in the Adobe age. It was a lot more like Microsoft Paint than Adobe Illustrator.
But now, Google is releasing a genuinely exciting Tiltbrush sequel to address just these issues. Called Blocks, it’s out today, free for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets. And it allows you to easily create 3D objects inside VR that you can export for any use you’d like.
With a palette in one hand, and a shaping tool in the other, Blocks allows you to snap together 3D models from basic shapes in moments, and then grab corners and surfaces to stretch and extrude your creation to your liking. Once you’re done, you can save these shapes as .obj files, and share them under Creative Commons licensing for anyone else to use, too.
For those keeping count, Blocks means that Google now has two VR creation tools. Adobe technically has none (though it supports VR video). Adobe has been the undisputed leader in 2D graphics for over 20 years, with a Swiss army knife of apps for creative use. Photoshop manipulates real images. Illustrator generates pixel perfect graphics from scratch. Premiere cuts video, and After Effects adds any number of visual trickery. But Adobe has ceded some turf along the way, too. It doesn’t have a rich 3D creation program, nor does it provide any tools for drawing in VR or AR.
To keep the industry moving forward, Google is essentially modeling Adobe to fill some of Adobe’s own gaps. First, it acquired Tiltbrush for VR sketching. Now, it built Blocks for VR-based, 3D object creation.
“The premise behind what we’re releasing is, many of us imagine this future where we have these immersive virtual realities, but without 3D objects to fill those realities, they don’t exist,” says Jason Toff, group Product Manager leading Google’s creative VR programs.
With Blocks, Google is laying the foundation for a massive play in VR and AR, because Blocks will be the cornerstone of an Adobe-like suite of VR creation apps from Google, which will pave the way for a new wave of user-created 3D movies and interactive experiences to come.
For Google, the foreseeable financial implications may be minor (ads will certainly be involved, somehow!). But imagine what could happen to the the $91 billion video game industry, or the $286 billion film/TV industry, if Google can build tools to make games and animated films easier to create by anyone?
While Google’s Daydream Lab prototypes new VR apps and games on a weekly basis, its developers realized they were encountering a regular problem. Whenever they needed a ladder, or a watering can for a demo, they’d often need to hop back into software like 3DS Max to draw one from scratch.
“It was really cumbersome,” says Toff. “We spent as much time modeling as coding.” And if having enough 3D models was a problem for Google, a company with almost limitless resources, it would certainly be a problem for every developer working in virtual or augmented reality.
The answer was Blocks, which Google coded from the ground up to be what is the most intuitive 3D modeling software I’ve ever used.
“What was familiar to most people was building toys as a child–Lego or Lincoln Logs,” says Toff. “We’d put down blocks to make a creation.” So in your right hand, you see a few different shapes. A cone. A box. A clunky sphere. You choose whichever you like by tapping on the controller, scale the size up or down with a button press, and then plop it in midair. From there, you can choose more shapes, stacking them on top, or you can grab any of the vertices to either stretch or cave them in.
Taking Toff’s advice, I started by building a robot–a 7-foot-tall robot, with a big block torso, and hose-like extruded legs. It felt like I was building a giant, magnetically assembled model. The ability to snap these simple geometric shapes together was liberating, and illustrated how far Google’s VR creation tools have come since I built my ill-fated Tiltbrush snowman.
Next, I tried to make a few objects from Super Mario Bros., inspired by the recent viral augmented reality Mario game. I pulled a giant green cylinder right out of the ground, then I filled it with a slightly smaller black cylinder. Presto, I had a pipe.
But the goomba proved trickier. Should I start with a sphere or a cone? I couldn’t decide. The sphere seemed like the right choice, until I had to pull corner after corner in a slew of monotony to create what was not, in any way, close to resembling a mushroom with two legs. I gave up. I made a turtle instead. And as I went to shape its head from a sphere, I remembered that I wasn’t sitting at my desktop, I was in VR. So I snapped the head off, and pulled it just inches from my face. Suddenly I felt less like a sculptor, and more like I was holding tweezers to make the tiniest of adjustments to a fine piece of jewelry.
For the most part, Blocks delivered on Toff’s promises. It was intuitive! There were no confusing submenus or oddly named tools to sort through. It felt closer to Lincoln Logs than 3DS Max any day. But it’s still clearly very young software that’s rough around the edges. While simple shapes snap together just fine, when snapping one complex object to another, it rarely connected in the spot that I would have assumed. It seems like a minor point, and yet, it’s exactly the sort of UI element that Google needs to painstakingly test and nail if 3D creation is going to transcend to mindlessness.
Furthermore, I found myself confused as to how I might make something as simple as a hot dog. Stacking shapes I got! But what was my best workflow to mush those shapes down to exactly what I wanted? Clearly, the art of 3D object creation still exists in Blocks, even if the interface itself removes many barriers.
The Next Step
The interface itself is only half of what makes Blocks so brilliant. The other half is exactly what you’re creating, and why. As you can see from the art inside this post, Blocks graphics are, for lack of a better term, blocky. The tools themselves limit you to a low polygon aesthetic, rather than the smoother organic forms of professional software.
Toff says this approach lowers the bar for what looks good. Sculpting a blocky hot dog doesn’t need the artistic finesse that sculpting a smooth hot dog would. Maybe so. More importantly, these low poly graphics are optimized to be rendered on smartphone processors, which means everything you draw inside Blocks is primed to be part of a Google Daydream VR game, or an AR app of the future. And finally, when you consider that you can share your creations with the touch of a button–making them free to use and remix under a Creative Commons license (Blocks adds automatic citation to any remixed object just like Paper, meaning original authors always get credit)–you realize that Google has built a way to source thousands, or perhaps millions of free-to-use 3D objects for developers to mine for future projects. And because of that low poly look? They all match, as if developed by a single art director.
Meanwhile, Google plans to release more VR creative tools, with Toff citing Adobe’s Creative Suite as a “perfect analogy” to Google’s approach of building a collection of specialist apps, rather than one do-everything program. And while Toff refuses to comment on specific future plans, an animation ap seems almost certain, as the company demoed an impressive VR animation tool last year–one that made complicated keyframes feel more like playing with toys.
Much like smartphone cameras and YouTube launched a new era for video, turning bored teens into social media stars, so too could the mix of open source graphics and easy animation tools launch the next big thing in cartoons. And this isn’t even considering what would happen if Google created more intuitive tools for building true interactive content–like all of that augmented reality stuff that’s supposedly right around the corner.
“We could have made a tablet app, or a desktop app,” Toff says of Blocks as our discussion comes to an end. “[But] it’s like, holy shit, no!–VR actually makes it easier to create. You just walk around the thing, you don’t have to use the scroll wheel to figure out which is your z-axis.” Toff is right. Blocks in VR makes 3D creation easier than ever because all of that complicated interface stuff disappears as you poke and prod at objects that seem real. Time will tell if the “VR actually makes it easier!” mantra applies to everything else in Google’s upcoming creative suite.