Seeing VR as a Creative Tool changed my perspective

It has been a while since I wrote about VR. The last time I mentioned is was in a post where I said I was moving away from this new medium after being immersed in it for over a year.

The reason for my departure from Head Mounted Displays was that after my first VR experiences, the wow-factor had quickly—and totally—evaporated. I could wow newcomers with it, but my Oculus Rift DK2 and first-gen Samsung Gear VR became dust catchers on a shelf before I sold them in the end of 2015 (with a surprisingly high profit).


Back in 2015, when the future looked bleak…


More specifically, the reason I stopped caring about VR was the lack of interesting content. None of the “VR experiences” I tried—passive ones, games and certainly not 360° videos—could convince me that this medium had a future beyond Wii-like first-time wows and corporate trade shows.

I still think this is true today. None of the available or announced VR content is going to make it the next thing every consumer wants—certainly not at the current price and probably not even at any price. A $2 Google Cardboard viewer will be fun enough for kids for years to come.

There will never will be a mass market for VR as an entertainment technology: consumers aren’t going to watch full sports event with it, watch movies with it or play full games with it.

This made me believe that VR technology has no future at all. I wasn’t going to spend $2000 of my hard-earned money on a HMD and a overpowered gaming PC.

But then I tried Tilt Brush—a Virtual Reality 3D painting application acquired by Google in April—for 5 minutes. And ordered an HTC Vive and a Gaming PC (Alienware Aurora with Nvidia GTX 1070) the same day.


Nick Lievendag using Tilt Brush on the HTC Vive


And I don’t regret it. I’ve tried every VR headset available, but somehow the Vive was the last one. And that experience changed my opinion the technology as a whole. I recently read a post from someone that has had one for 3 months saying “stepping into VR is way more interesting when you’re actually stepping into VR.”

I agree: room-scale VR (being able to walk around) makes a big difference. But for me that wasn’t the biggest differentiator from the Oculus Rift DK2 I owned before. What changed my perspective on the potential of Virtual Reality were the two perfectly tracked, wireless controllers that come with the Vive. Even though I didn’t see my own hands, the fact that I saw digital copies of the controllers that looked an behaved exactly like reality, gave me a unprecedented feeling of immersion—and excitement—even though I was just standing in the lab-like white introduction room.

What I was holding, where Virtual Tools of Creation.




What changed my perspective on the potential of Virtual Reality where the two perfectly tracked, wireless controllers that come with the Vive.


I’ll admit that physically installing the Vive’s Lighthouse Tracking System that enables room-scale VR and the tracking of the controllers requires some planning, but I was lucky that my studio has an insane amount of power outlets.


vive installation


When planned right, the installation isn’t hard. But this is at my workplace! I don’t see people drilling holes and hanging black boxes in their homes at ceiling level. My girlfriend certainly won’t let me do that in our living room and that’s the only room with enough free space.

And that’s the whole point of this post. I still don’t believe that VR will enter many homes—now or in the future—but I now realize this doesn’t need to happen to make the technology successful. And contrary to what I thought before, it also doesn’t have to get cheaper. In fact: it’s not expensive at all if you look VR as a tool for the professional creation of 3D content.

If you start seeing an HTC Vive (which comes with two controllers) as a professional design tool and compare its price to that of a Wacom Cintiq (a pen-display input device used by many professional designers and illustrators) it’s actually a bargain. Plus any creative professional can invest in such tools with advantages like tax deduction.

I’ve been doing professional 3D design, animation and visual effects for work for over 10 years, mainly in Cinema 4D. I also actually produced a few experiences for VR, from 3D-animated 360° videos to interactive 3D experiments made with the Unity game-development software. But Tilt Brush was the first time I made a 3D creation in VR.



The irony is that this first experience took place at the studio of an art painter that had no previous digital design experience whatsoever. He bought a Vive setup after a demo and has been Tilt Brushing along ever since. So I had to try it when I visited him for my 3D technology consulting service regarding the 3D scanning of his artworks.

My first Tilt Brush artwork consisted of just a few glowing strokes of virtual paint. It’s by far the worst thing I’ve ever “designed” but the creation process blew my mind. I especially didn’t expect the controllers be so accurate. I was standing inches away from my artwork to add small details.

I’ve always felt that creating 3D artwork on a computer designed for 2D in every way is counterintuitive. I’ve tried 3D input devices like the SpaceMouse, but that didn’t help a lot. As a professional, you just get used to using a Wacom tablet and a using a lot of keyboard modifiers to both navigate around and edit your 3D work in 2D space.


After those few Tilt Brush strokes I realized how restricting monitor-based 3D tools are for the creative process.


This is especially true when you want to go beyond 3D modeling rigid designs and move into organic sculpting. If you have ever tried ZBrush—the de facto standard of 3D sculpting software—you know that you can achieve great artistic results with this software, but at the price of a very steep learning curve. This might not be a problem for full-time 3D artists that have ZBrush muscle memory, but I’m not—at least not anymore. I do like to express myself creatively—in 3D—once in a while and right after those few Tilt Brush strokes I realized how restricting monitor-based 3D tools are for the creative process.


I let my 20 months old daughter decide the subject for my very first Tilt Brush piece.


As you can see in the example above (exported directly from Tilt Brush and uploaded to Sketchfab) Google’s approach to 3D creation with Tilt Brush is more like 3D painting than sculpting. You can really see the virtual brush strokes—a visual style that’s hard to create with desktop 3D software. And this is drawn with the most boring of all brushes, you can also paint with light, fire, electricity and strokes that react to sound.

But Tilt Brush it’s not the only application in the upcoming category of in-VR creation tools. I’ve also had a lot of fun with SculptrVR that offers a voxel-based sculpting workflow to create artwork with a Minecraft-like aesthetic. You can even do this in multi-player (or rather, multi-creator) mode with other people over the internet.

If you want a more detailled in-VR sculpting experience, you should keep an eye out for Medium. It’s being developed by Facebook-owned Oculus and will be exclusively available for the Rift VR headset. But for that you have to wait until Oculus finally releases their Touch controllers later this year.




I haven’t tried the Touch controllers, but I’ve heard great things about their accuracy. I really want to test them in combination with Medium to judge if I’ll miss the room-scale VR that the single-camera tracking system of the Oculus Rift doesn’t offer out of the box (you can extend the range by adding 3 more cameras, though).

But Oculus thinks room-scale isn’t necessary for VR. Maybe that’s true… Honestly, I won’t be surprised if in-VR sculpting also works great as still-standing or even a seated experience. That might even be more comfortable for professionals for longer periods of times. I wouldn’t say Tilt Brushing is exhausting, but I don’t see myself doing it for hours.


I won’t be surprised if in-VR sculpting also works great as still-standing or even a seated experience.


But in-VR creation doesn’t stop at making visual art. Last week, SoundStage was released for the HTC Vive, allowing users to produce music in a completely new way. And Tvori let’s you create 3D animations in a way that I (an animation studio co-founder) never thought would be possible.

And both the Unity and Unreal game-development applications are working on in-VR editors. This means that you can soon build interactive VR content using the hardware intended for experiencing the content when it’s finished.




And let’s not forget the upcoming Playstation VR. I still think Sony will win the VR War and outsell Oculus and HTC with its console-based system, but I wasn’t impressed by the PSVR launch lineup presented at E3 this year. They’re naturally all games and I guess it’s clear by now that I’m not interested in those.

One exception is a title that will probably not be available on launch: Dreams. The “game” is developed by Media Molecule, a studio that became famous with the Little Big Planet games that cemented Playstation’s “Play, Create, Share” mantra. Dreams is described as “…a space in which to create your own dreams, whether they’re games, art, films, music or anything in-between and beyond.”


Playstation VR’s professional usability will depend on how accurate the Move controllers are


I was a big fan of the original Little Big Planet and created a few very fun levels with the innovative creation tools back in the Playstation 3 era. I can totally see that work in VR, so I’m very curious to how Media Molecule will incorporate VR for the creation part of Dreams.

I can’t help to think that Sony has more plans with in-VR creation for Playstation VR. Will this be the revival of the 1990’s My First Sony Sketch Pad? Maybe for kids, but Playstation VR’s professional usability will depend on how accurate the Move Controllers are. Rumors are they’re not very accurate and some even call it PSVR’s weak spot.



Ultimately, I’m hoping that the developers behind established 3D creation software like Maya, 3DS Max, Cinema 4D and ZBrush will add in-VR editing functionality to their software. This would certainly make the step into 3D design more approachable for newcomers.

I don’t think it in-VR creation will replace the current workflow of experienced 3D designers, but I’m positive it can add something to it—especially in the creative sketching phase. For the same reason I believe that the iPad Pro can be great for sketching visual ideas, on the couch or while traveling, that can be used as a base for more detailled artwork with “serious” desktop software later.

I guess every creative knows the best ideas don’t emerge behind a desk… And for me Tilt Brushing with the HTC Vive is the least desk-like digital design experience I can imagine—truly expressive.


Brushing up my memory

I made my first digital creations when I was about ten years old (read: the early 1990s). One artwork I remember was a scene from Star Wars. I made it in Autodesk Animator on my dad’s Apple Macintosh Performa 630—a rare PC-compatible Mac that also ran MS-DOS.

Unfortunately I don’t have the actual artwork anymore (old floppy disks apparently become unreadable after decades) because it would be considered 8-bit pixel art today. But I remember it vividly.

So I had to redo it as one of my first Tilt Brush drawings. Here’s a video I captured in VR with the nice tool that’s built into Tilt Brush. It attaches a viewfinder onto one of the controllers, which then becomes a virtual camera:





I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I liked writing it. Now let me get back to testing 3D Scanners! If you think this post is interesting for your friends or followers, please share it on your favorite social network by using one of the buttons below.

Nick Lievendag

Entrepreneur at the intersection of Creativity × Technology — 3D Expert.

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