It’s amazing to see the amount of high quality, expressive, and robustly featured VR art-making apps that have already emerged within a short period of time. In engaging with and exploring many of these tools, I have distilled down what makes a compelling and creative tool for art-making and art therapy into several properties.
Multiplayer / Shared VR Space
Purchasing and setting up one VR rig for your practice is quite the investment on many levels. When your client is immersed in the VR headset making art, it can be restrictive to educate the client on using an app, troubleshoot technical issues, or make a 3rd hand intervention.
Presently I use a projector as a second monitor to see a large VR mirror view of what the client is seeing and doing. This is quite manageable and compelling, however in the future having two VR rigs (one for the consumer, one for the therapist) is where the ultimate potential of VR art therapy is unlocked.
Being present within the client’s artwork together, navigating and experiencing what they are creating allows for unlimited possibilities. It makes the aforementioned therapist input much more relational, rich, and impactful. There are several apps that have the ability to host two or more individuals in the same VR art space. MasterpieceVR allows multiple people to create within a VR environment or even participate in a group VR art therapy experience.
Playback & Sharing Options
After creating artwork in true volumetric 3D space, it’s important that the creation can then be experienced by others in an equally impactful way. Many apps have the ability to export a 2D image or video of the finished art and save it to disc or online, however this loses a lot of dimensional presence of the work.
A better option is to export the VR art file as a 3D object that can give the viewer a sense of scale and volume when seen through a simple VR device such as Google Cardboard. The Sketchfab website hosts files in this manner and some apps export VR art directly to the artist’s Sketchfab account. Google has done a great job with their own apps Tilt Brush & Blocks having dedicated websites for each respectively. Once files are uploaded they can even be remixed by other artists, adding a collaborative and evolving element to VR works.
Perhaps the most exciting way to experience VR art is to be present in VR space, load a file, and experience the work come to life stroke by stroke in 360 degrees around you. Painting apps such as Tilt Brush and Quill include this feature and it’s an amazing way to share your creative process. For therapists to witness their client’s artwork emerge in this way can yield unique insight and appreciation.
Luminaries of the art therapy field such as Wadeson and Kramer have emphasized the importance of art materials that have a wide spectrum of expressive qualities. Materials that span a dynamic range from thick to thin, smooth to rough, and that resist and obey are critical to offer the widest range of creative engagement.
Tools that mimic traditional media from oil paint to clay are features contained in many VR art apps. Different size and shape brush tips, stamps, and stroke tapers provide an assortment of mark making possible impressions within the VR space. Erasing, smoothing, smudging virtual paint or pushing, pulling, carving virtual clay can alter and augment primary marks and forms in an intuitive and natural way.
While it can be argued that tactile sensation is limited with digital art tools in general, VR hand presence controllers provide haptic feedback via vibrational response. Several VR art apps use this feature to add visceral weight and believability to the gestural artistic movements of the user.
Computing with a 2D monitor and inputs such as a mouse and keyboard create a level of abstraction in regards to the user interface (UI). With VR, there is much more direct human familiarity with the ability to use your hands in 3D space as we naturally do in the real world.
Many VR apps use relatable metaphors to our everyday movements and actions. For example in Tilt Brush and Blocks, to change handedness is as easy as tapping the ends of the hand presence controllers together. In addition, palettes can be positioned anywhere around you in 3D space making art tools easily accessible at all times (no menus to dig through as in 2D interfaces).
One of the aspects of VR that takes some time getting acclimated to is orientation and navigation in 3D space. Since scale is such an important facet of being in a virtual space, having cues right away help to position the user and get them comfortable. In Tilt Brush, squeezing the grip buttons pulls up a size slider with a visual reference of a squirrel, dog, human, elephant, and Brontosaurus. Each of these represents the scale at which you will view the VR artwork with the squirrel making the work giant sized and Brontosaurus simulating a kind of miniature scale piece.
Almost all VR art apps have adopted one or both of the controller grips to scale, rotate, and move the VR artwork. This works in a very gestural and intuitive way, moving your arms forward and back as if you were pulling a rope to move, pulling your hands out to the sides to scale, and twisting your wrists to rotate. If you scale to a small size, 3D painted and sculpted VR objects can be held and manipulated front to back by moving and twisting your hand / wrist just like you would work with an art object in real life.
Making virtual reality art is an active and dynamic activity. Constant movement around the artwork and navigating 3D space requires smooth and uninterrupted tracking (how sensors detect your head and hands to know where you are) to keep artist immersed. The best VR art apps provide solid performance when the user moves either their head or hands when creating. These tools are consistently updated and improved when tracking bugs are experienced.
When there are tracking or latency issues (VR world isn’t updating each second to match user movement) sim sickness can occur which is a serious VR issue. While occasional artifacts can and do occur with top VR art apps, the VR world remains persistent and updated the majority of the time. That being said, breaks from the headset and staying hydrated are important practices.
While the best VR art apps offer a lot of creative options in themselves, combining tools together through import and export provides expansive combinations. For instance you might build or sculpt a figure or object in Blocks or Medium, then export your creation into Tilt Brush or AnimVR to add animated brushstrokes.
The two most common formats for exporting static art files are .FBX and .OBJ. Many VR art apps have these options which also allow you to upload VR artwork. Websites such as SketchFab host these files which can be experienced with VR viewers such as Google Cardboard.
Alembic is a more advanced file export option which AnimVR supports. It allows animations to be sent to other programs. Tilt Brush and AnimVR have released Unity game engine toolkits that take your entire file into Unity and enables the user to add full interactivity along with lights, materials, camera movement and more.
Digital Art Advantages
Using technology for art creation allows for properties unique to the digital medium. All of the top VR apps have incorporated features such as undo / redo, layers, duplication, and mirroring. Digital art tools can help with session time constraints and allow for quick iterations and variations on a theme. They can help clients feel comfortable and competent with the VR art tools.
It’s important that VR art app companies respond in a timely manner to any issues or bugs that users may encounter. User feedback from artists creates a feedback loop for new features to be incorporated in future updates. Well resourced businesses such as Oculus and Google have dedicated teams to address concerns and provide updates and fixes. Some of the smaller independent teams may not have as many members but in the age of social media sometimes respond faster and are more connected with their user base.
Many apps have created user engagement and connection through social media. Often times app creators will offer prompts around themes and holidays and then ask the community to post their creations to various online destinations to share with others. Tilt Brush has its online website Sketches which allows users to post VR artwork and have other artists download the original file, remix it, and post the new version. This is a type of response art that can create empathy and connection.