I’m standing beneath the underpass, spray paint in hand. I look left, look right. The coast is clear. So I grab my stencil and start to spray.
Of course, there’s no risk of the cops catching me. I’m more worried that the errant swing of an arm will knock down my laptop, or put a hole in one of my wife’s paintings. Because I’m not actually tagging concrete in public. I’m using the HTC Vive rig squeezed into my dining room.
The app is called GhostPaint, and it’s been developed by Epic Games (the same company behind the industry-standard Unreal Engine Co.Design has written about extensively before). Currently in beta, it’s essentially Epic’s response to Google's Tilt Brush, the VR drawing tool that lets you paint in mid-air.
GhostPaint's drawing in midair feature is "coming soon." So instead, my options are relegated to the wall, which can be airbrushed or spray painted. I hold the airbrush in my hand, admiring its virtual detail. It requires two hands to use, I’ve read, just like a real airbrush. Perfect. Of course, I have no idea how to use an airbrush, so I select the spray-paint option instead. And then I go to town on the 20-foot wall in front of me, picking the exact spot I'd like to start.
In my left hand, I can hold pre-made stencils that I can switch through with a flick of my thumb. In the right, I hold the can. If I want to change the color, I simply point at a menu that floats in midair by my side. This two-handed coordination feels just right, so much more physically inspired than the one-armed mouse, or one-handed touch-screen tapping, that most of us use every day as our primary UI.
Crucially, all of the physics feel good. My mind believes the stencil and paint can are both entirely real. I can even tilt the stencil as I spray to subtly tweak the angle of attack, tweaking the final product in subtle ways. It’s like I’m really spray painting—I assume! (Much like airbrushing, I’ve never actually spray-painted, but I have watched Exit Through The Gift Shop.)
However, GhostPaint lacks the intuitive interface of Tilt Brush. While TiltBrush has you hold a cube-palette in one hand, and your brush in the other, GhostPaint requires that you constantly assign different controls to each hand by tapping on a menu set by your side. A stencil and spray paint. A camera and airbrush. Have you ever tried to tap a button with your hands full of screens and paint? That’s what GhostPaint asks of you constantly.
It’s all complicated further when you want to move. If I want to reposition myself across the very large areas, I can teleport anywhere in the environment by aiming a reticle and warping there. The catch? As I learn early on, you’d better grab that menu first. Otherwise, you just teleported without your controls. (And if there’s a shortcut to get them back, I didn’t find it.)
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the 20 minutes I spent inside GhostPaint—and I’m sure anyone who has fantasized about tagging a building but lacks the backbone to do so will, too. You’ve gotta try it, my fellow stop sign-respecting, banana peel-composting friends! But Epic has a ways to go, both in adding more 3D drawing features, and streamlining the interface as it’s built now. Tilt Brush is usable instantly. I’ve seen a dozen people pick it up and understand the brush and palette metaphor within seconds. GhostPaint has something like ten mini screens of content to read through before you’re ready to paint. And the only real way to understand all the controls—a mix of gestures, trigger pulls, and button pushes—is to use the app long enough to learn them.
Furthermore, I can't help but wonder if you can build a true graffiti simulator that's removed the most important part of the medium: its counter-culture derisiveness. Graffiti is illegal art intended to provoke society, and as a result, it's born in dangerous circumstances in which you might be seconds from arrest at any moment. Would it be cheesy for GhostPaint to have embraced the fear and consequences of getting caught? Perhaps. But it would also capture a hue of the medium that no color picker could.
That said, anyone with an HTC Vive should try out GhostPaint when it’s available. The app is a blast. It’s only going to get better. And most of all, Tilt Brush could use some competition—not because Tilt Brush isn’t quite capable, but because VR is way too young for us to settle on its Photoshop-equivalent just yet. We need a lot of companies putting forth their best ideas before VR content creation grows into its own.