When I exited the Oculus Medium demo people told me I looked shell-shocked and, indeed, my mind was exploding with possibilities after I had experienced the sheer ecstasy of being taught by another person, while in a virtual environment, how to sculpt with my hands.
On traditional computers, 3D modeling software is expensive and students could spend many thousands of dollars to learn how to use it effectively. In Oculus Medium, though, a virtual teacher – another human being wearing another VR headset – can share the same virtual room with you and teach you how to use the software in less than five minutes.
I was like a kid who had just started doodling on a scrap of paper, making weird shapes in mid-air. Bringing my two hands together and then stretching them wide I scaled up my sculpture to the size of the room and could spray paint colors onto the sides of the object floating in front of me. I could hold it in one hand and rotate it around in place to melt down the rough edges.
My experience in the simulation was very short and most of it was spent by Brian Sharp, Head of Future Media at Oculus, touring me through the different controls. My time was nearly up and I hadn’t made anything in front of me that I could write home about. He told me if I wanted they could send me screenshots of my creation. So I turned around and quickly sketched my daughter’s name in mid-air.
I have been following VR intently for more than three years now and I’ve talked to researchers at USC, Stanford and NYU who suggest VR can unlock higher levels of human thinking. Oculus Medium is the first piece of software I have seen where that seemingly far-off promise really took shape for me. I must say, however, that I haven’t been able to try Google’s amazing Tilt Brush app yet with my own hands so I can’t do a direct comparison.
Overall, the software is clearly still a work in progress. For example, unlocking the various tools to shape and color the sculpture was done using both hands in concert together when it seems like using one hand to switch between the major tools would be both feasible using the Oculus Touch controllers and easier to manage. I was so focused on understanding the tools and talking with Sharp I didn’t notice haptics with the Oculus Touch controllers. I’ve heard from others, including our editor in chief, who have tried both apps that Tilt Brush’s haptics make a huge difference, providing feedback to users as they paint. That said, Medium is expected to ship with the Touch controllers next year and, at least for me, it represents a killer app for the Rift.
I am a big believer creating things while inside VR will be a critical component of making the technology a mainstream success. Software like Tilt Brush, Stacks by Convrge, Fantastic Contraption, ViveCraft and Altspace show hints of software that will allow you to create things in VR. However, the depth of the tools in Medium combined with how easy it was to get started suggests to me Oculus is on the cusp of crossing a critical threshold where more people can create something far more quickly than could have been done with traditional 3D modeling software on a PC.
The time spent learning how to build a 3D model in three dimensions using a keyboard and mouse on a flat 2D screen is orders of magnitude harder than it is using the more natural human computing interface Oculus is building with Medium, Touch and Rift. While the added complexity of the PC interface limits the number of people who might build a 3D model, Medium can unlock the creativity inside practically everyone.
“Every great platform has to have a ‘paint’ app and this is gonna be our ‘paint’ app,” Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said.
There is still years of work ahead for the people working on Medium but this software could one day become the foundation of a more fully fledged experience engine. It isn’t hard to imagine sculpting avatars or objects using future versions of this software and then rigging them up so they can be controlled by a person and animating them with your own human movements.
“I would love to work on animation,” wrote Oculus Technical Art Director Lydia Choy, who worked on the Medium project for more than a year. “Gotta finish sculpting first though.”
It’s easy to picture college-age students donning inexpensive headsets at home, learning from world-class creators instead of taking expensive college classes using ancient computer terminals with 2D monitors. Why leave home and go to a college a thousand miles away to become overwhelmed by thousands of dollars of debt?
Five years before the iPhone, having access to the entirety of human knowledge at your fingertips at all times was the stuff of science fiction, but it is the reality today of a rapidly growing percentage of the global population. Oculus Medium might seem like science fiction today but, when combined with entertainment apps like Netflix and Minecraft coming to VR, the path to a future where mixed reality technologies subsume all other mediums has never seemed more sure.
Last year at Oculus Connect chief scientist Michael Abrash said “we haven’t seen the thing that’s going to cause people have to use VR day after day because it’s so compelling.” I didn’t get the chance to ask him this year whether he had seen that now.