If you liked playing with “Paint” in the 1980s, wait until you try it in virtual reality

The future of design?
The future of design?
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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With the releases of Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive Pre headsets right round the corner, hype around virtual reality devices has built to a fever pitch.

In the halls of this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, just about every booth seems to have fit some sort of virtual reality (VR) technology into their display. Many involve jamming some sort of brand activation into one of the forthcoming VR systems, and a few showed off the systems’ potential as immersive gaming rigs. But one of the applications that really stood out was essentially the same thing that we’ve been enjoying since the introduction of Windows in 1985: Paint.

With the versions of painting apps that have shipped on computers over the years, budding artists have only been able to work in two dimensions. But with VR, you’ll be able to get inside of your artwork, building landscapes and worlds with digital paintbrushes.

Dassault Systèmes, the 3D design software company, set up a proof-of-concept experience at its booth, where attendees could strap on an HTC Vive headset and paint in a virtual world. The booth was fitted with Microsoft’s Kinect 3D cameras that captured motion on the booth floor and beamed digital versions of the painter onto screens around the booth. The cameras first capture a still of you in some position, and then after that, you can paint a world around your 3D digital selfie.

My TV party.
Image: Dassault Systèmes/Mike Murphy

To test it out, I sat on a stool, and Dassault’s representatives suggested I try drawing myself watching TV. I’m a terrible artist, but using HTC’s handheld controllers, I was able to paint a three-dimensional TV box, a little wall around the TV, and a little digital smartphone that virtual Mike was distracting himself with.

The results were not amazing, but it was a lot of fun. I was only given a few minutes, but I was just starting to think about how I could draw an entire living room that I could spend some time in. Dassault said that in the future, VR may allow us to create in entirely new ways, blowing up and exploring our designs from the inside.

While Dassault’s demonstration was just a piece of software designed to draw traffic to its booth, it does seem likely that VR-enabled future generations will still pass time playing games, watching movies, and painting pictures, like generations past. Other companies, including Nvidia and Intel had similar demonstrations set up at CES, and Microsoft has shown off its own 3D painting and modeling software.