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A pen. Doesn’t sound particularly innovative or special, right? Despite the inventive potential of this everyday writing instrument, it’s certainly not considered cutting edge; pens have been around in various, evolving forms for eons. But combine a writing instrument with virtual reality and you may just have the next wave of creative revolution in the digital age. Virtual reality and augmented reality use computer imaging to layer simulated information over real to create visual, auditory, and other interactive sensations via headset or through a tablet or smartphone. VR pens are emerging as an expansive tool for expression in inventive fields and beyond.
Today, designers, engineers, architects, artists, and even gamers have the ability to create nuanced, precise 3D experiences through VR technology.[i] No longer just a stylus interacting with a flat surface, VR pens can now create digitized drawings, attach to other objects for virtual tracking, and manipulate objects in 3D, all with a familiar, user-friendly tool. Users can change the planes on which a pen is sketching, meaning the drawing can be given volume. The drawings can be rotated and approached from any angle.
Wikipedia defines virtual reality as “a computer-generated scenario that simulates experience.”[ii] When we think of VR, the typical image is one of a computer nerd with a huge headset covering her eyes who is divorced from “actual” reality, and is immersed in a fantastical alternative universe, mouth agape, escaping from whatever is going on in the corporeal world around them.
Today, the impression of virtual reality is changing, due in part to its increasingly ubiquitous presence in popular culture, sporting events, advertising, music videos and film. Beyond entertainment, VR is showing up as a key component in the advancement of robotics, flight and driving simulation training, and even space exploration. Social scientists and psychologists are delving into using VR to control environments for studies in order to create consistent and significant results. Additionally, therapists have found VR to be effective in exposure therapy for disorders such as PTSD. Surgical training, military simulations, and occupational safety are also areas where virtual reality has changed the modality of how vital information is experienced and disseminated.
Art and design is a horse of a different color, however, especially where 3D capabilities are concerned. Tools like Google’s Tilt Brush allow creators to draw on a 2D surface and build out, or paint in life-sized, 3D works of art. It’s designed to work with VR interface systems like Oculus Rift or VIVE, but can also be activated using a keyboard and mouse. Creations can be scaled to the size of the room, or transformed into animation or GIF images. Images can be created so that the “room is the canvas.” Others can view the drawing using their own headset, walk around it, interact with it, and even add to it, layering selected colors, brushstrokes, and effects like fire, smoke and snow.
While the Tilt Brush is just that – a brush – there are a number of “pens” created for use in VR that allow the user to create, design and manipulate images for precise, complex modeling used in things like mechanical and civil engineering applications. While working in 3D can be challenging, the implement itself offers a user-friendly, intuitive accessibility.[iii] VR pens have evolved quickly, increasing capability, range of movement capture and collaborative capabilities, while simplifying the instrument itself to be more and more like a traditional, hand-held pen that works seamlessly with VR headsets and software.
Originally intended as a tool for car and shoe designers, Gravity Sketch is a mixed reality tool that works allows artists, designers, engineers, and VR enthusiasts to create digital 3D creations and actually transport them to a 3D printer to produce. Previously, images were created on a flat screen in 2D, then transferred to 3D using CAD software. Tools like Gravity Sketch circumvent the two-dimensional step, allowing the user to manipulate the design in midair, creating a virtual sketch pad in space.[iv]
Companies like Massless are working to determine exactly what parts of the hand and fingers are used in drawing, and recreate that capability in VR pen. The system tracks the tip of the stylus, allowing the user to draw in the air and adjust the size of the stroke. Creators of VR pens continue to fine-tune the VR pen’s ability to mimic the natural, automatic action of writing and the interaction with the surface while also layering in all of the capabilities that VR offers (positional tracking, rotational and tilt abilities, collaborative drawing, etc.).
The technological implications for VR writing instruments are far-reaching. While perhaps not as immersive as forms of virtual reality that create a comprehensive tactile experience, the advances that can be attained with VR writing and drawing include an expansive sense of spatial awareness and artistic expression. No longer the exclusive realm of CAD experts, today’s VR writing and drawing instruments make the creation of 3D, interactive images accessible to everyone, “lowering the digital barrier” and extending the possibilities of creative exploration to a new population of users.
The portrayal of virtual and augmented reality in popular culture has presented everything from a bleak, degraded picture of the sensory prison that can be created when the virtual replaces the actual, to a utopian landscape where VR offers an escape to a place where we can create our own, ideal reality regardless of physical limitations (both real and perceived) and sociopolitical disenfranchisement. Unlike artificial escapism, the artistic capabilities that today’s VR tools offer seems to be a way to bridge the gap between vanishing into dystopian insignificance and actually using technology in an imaginative way that both pushes the boundaries and enhances the authenticity of what humans can build, write and create together.
[i] Lutero, Leo. VR pen gives design professionals a precise tool for 3D drawing. psfk. 14 June 2017. Accessed 17 April 2018.
[iii] Takahashi, Dean. Massless lets you write with a pen in virtual reality. VB. 4 June 2017. Accessed 18 April 2018.
[iv] Stinson, Elizabeth. Gravity Sketch’s wild VR app will let you draw in mid-air. Wired. 29 September 2016. Retrieved 20 April 2018.