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Inside the Artist’s Headset – Sterling Crispin’s Cyber Paint

While HTC Vive owners have Tilt Brush, and Oculus users have Quill, Daydream users have had no equivalent tool at their fingertips – until now. Created by California-based artist Sterling Crispin with Unity, Cyber Paint is a freshly-released painting app for Google’s VR platform. “Anything that happens in the physical act of applying paint to a surface can be simulated realistically,” says Crispin over email. “But it’s more interesting to go beyond the edges of what’s possible with traditional paint. The app really isn’t a painting simulator … it’s a laboratory for algorithmic mark-making.”

It definitely is a space for mark-making, Cyber Paint boasts several ‘scenes’ in which a user can paint. A traditional studio, a desert, outer space – regardless of which setting a user chooses they are dealing with the same rudimentary UI, which fans out across your field of view easy access given their proximity to the central canvas. A painter’s sensibility has definitely been brought to the brush properties interface, which allows the user tune the impact of modifiers linked to each of the Daydream controllers’ possible manipulations with sliders. This coupled with simple tool and material selector, and modifier, allows the user to almost immediately jump into painting when they boot up the app for the first time.

“I wanted the interface to feel like AR within VR – glassy and transparent – yet still have variety in materiality, textures and symbols,” says Crispin. A large and crude-but-intuitive UI reminiscent of Kai’s Power Tools, aesthetic ‘defaults’ that feel quite 90s, even the name Cyber Paint screams retro; and while he might be playing a nostalgia card or two, Crispin insists his design goals are decidedly contemporary. “I want to take the algorithm-as-material concept further and introduce new tools as well. It was important to me that the brush properties could be data driven and I want to take that further.”

If ‘gesture as brusthstroke’ has been thought through quite thoroughly the 2D surface on which those marks are applied remains a little vexing. Arriving in the app a user selects a canvas with a predefined aspect ratio, plunks it down in their setting of choice and begins work. It’s clear that this lends itself to expediently exporting completed paintings (they are saved to the device’s camera roll) but is the goal of making images in VR to export them in 2D? The app also offers a 360 photosphere setting, which turns the space the user occupies into the canvas – and while surgical control over ‘a surface’ is lost, the weird embodied experience of painting the entire environment feels much more liberating. It’s quite interesting that Cyber Paint (and its much more well-heeled brethren Tilt Brush and Quill) prompt these kinds of questions: is it ‘painting, in VR’ or ‘painting in VR?’ It’s a bit of an ontological dilemma, when you rejigger one medium within another.

↑ Cause and effect: Cyber Paints UI is tightly calibrated for precise mark making, but the looseness of its ‘canvas free’ photosphere is where it shines

In thinking about what it means for an artist to release his painting tool commercially, Crispin feels other tensions at play as well. “There’s a movement in the software-art world to open source everything, which is in total opposition to the fine art world’s production of rare discrete objects. It’s a strange dance to perform between these extreme modes of distribution and I think selling a software tool fits somewhere between them.”

Cyber Paint is available on the Google Play store for $5.99 USD.

Project Page | Sterling Crispin