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I watched NBA players paint in VR to promote Mountain Dew

Are VR painting apps like Google's Tilt Brush the future of art?

Dale Wilcox / AP Images for Mountain Dew

I have an amateurish rule of thumb for evaluating VR experiences, one I call the Laugh Test: does this demo feature something so cool I start chuckling in awe? It took a few minutes and a slight prod for Google’s Tilt Brush painting demo to pass it, but I eventually made it there. I strapped on an HTC Vive headset, picked an environment — you can paint in space, in the snow, and in a blank room, among other zones — and started drawing 2D houses using the Vive’s handheld controllers: windows, roofs, lawns, little stick people, and their stick dogs just outside.

I was puzzling over what to do next when I felt a tap on my shoulder from a nearby attendant: "You can go 3D, remember?" I picked up my brush and drew a few new lines, and my square house became a cube. The little roof triangle I’d drawn was now a prism, and I could reach my hand inside and stir up the house’s theoretical contents. It felt like some fundamental secret of the universe had been revealed: I was painting in space, not on paper. I couldn’t help but crack up. It passed the test with flying colors.

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(Noah Thorne)

I watched a few people enjoy similar epiphanic moments at Mountain Dew’s Court Vision event in Toronto last weekend. Framed as a combination of a public demo session and an exhibition for VR art, Court Vision ran alongside the weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities, and players like Russell Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas visited the space to try Tilt Brush for themselves. (They seemed just as excited and nervous as any other garden-variety attendee. "This is going to be my first time," said the Portland Trail Blazers’ Noah Vonleh. "I’ve never done anything like this.") Four semi-circular pods equipped with Vive rigs and cameras — they were being used to GIF users while they painted — bracketed a central stage where artists from Toronto and Los Angeles were making new work using Tilt Brush in real time. The space was also dotted with large touch-screen panels that let you spin the artists’ works and pre-set creations around in 3D.

The trained artists were fluid and spatially aware

The contrast between the artists and the neophytes queueing up to use the demo stations was readily apparent, and that’s probably not a surprise. The four stations were equipped with all sorts of standard VR safeguards designed to protect their users — a hefty guard rail, a little rubber strip at toe height, employees at the ready — and related instructions: don’t pick your feet up off the ground, don’t wander too far, pick an environment and play with it. The artists in the middle of the room maintained their fluidity and spatial awareness even inside their headsets, and you could evaluate the delicacy and precision of their movements through huge overhead monitors that combined to look like a mini-Jumbotron. I stuck to houses and geometric shapes; they pulled limbs out of the air, molded orange basketballs, rendered figures in motion. The results occupied a zone somewhere between a traditional painting and sculpture.

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(Dale Wilcox / AP Images for Mountain Dew)

This is a big part of what makes Tilt Brush special: you can grasp it easily enough to have a moment of personal joy, and you can still be blown away by someone else’s work. Its balance of accessibility and depth is hugely appealing. "I think it makes everyone feel like they’re Michelangelo themselves," said Carlos Saavedra, a senior director of creator culture at PepsiCo. Saavedra was part of the team responsible for designing and coordinating Court Vision. "For folks who are ‘creatively challenged’ when it comes to making art — like painting, for example — getting to create something out of thin air is a really special feeling." You might have compelling ideas without the tools to bring them to life on a canvas or page, skills we traditionally associate with artists, and Tilt Brush can provide an alternative way to realize those ideas. "I think you’re going to see a different kind of artist emerge because of it," said Saavedra.

"What does the gallery of the future look like?"

That alternative path can’t be travelled without a significant infusion of capital, at least not in 2016. The Vive and competitors like the Oculus Rift won’t be available to consumers until later this year, and the equipment could be prohibitively expensive for the starving would-be artists who need it. (That includes both the headsets and the powerful computers needed to power them.) Of course, Saavedra noted that conventional art comes with its own set of recurring costs — materials, studio, and gallery space — that could be just as expensive in the long run, and Tilt Brush could open doors to methods of exhibition we haven’t really considered. "It’s going to be a new way to create and experience art," said Saavedra. "What does the gallery of the future look like?"