Experiments in Art & VR: A Conversation with Artist Scobot
Experiments in Art & VR: A Conversation with Artist Scobot
A: Hello Scott! Can you briefly introduce yourself, tell us more about your trajectory as an artist, your interests?
S: I grew up in Spokane, Washington. I lived in Portland, moved to Seattle in 1988, and I’ve lived here ever since. I’m currently the artist in residence at the University of Washington’s CoMotions Labs which is a VR/AR start-up incubator. I’ve always been interested in making video games and bringing my artwork into a game engine. That was kind of the holy grail. I started to modd with Unreal Tournament 2004. It was my introduction to creating games even though a lot of it was just trying to learn. Since then, I’ve been using Unreal off and on. I didn’t study the arts post high school, I went for music instead because I wanted to be a rock’n’roll star! [laughs] I struggled a lot trying to become a musician and finally found a vocation being a scenic artist, painting large scale backdrops for productions. Eventually in 2005, I became a professional VJ. I stopped painting as I was lucky enough to make a living out of doing live video editing performances in clubs. I’ve spent hours and hours making two-second video clips, little loops of car crashes, people dancing, MGM movies, spaceships, all sorts of stuff matched together and played with a midi keyboard. I did that for about ten years. Now, I don’t VJ so much anymore. I’m way more into VR. I did transition a little bit into doing live paintings before diving into VR. That was kind of connecting the two: live performances and drawing on the fly. Then, when I got my Oculus Dk2 in 2015 I was like “Yeah, this is awesome!” And when the HTC Vive was on the horizon, I knew TiltBrush was a part of the package and that was super exciting. I’ve been waiting for this for so long! There was also another program called Paintlab in which I could do a lot of things that TiltBrush didn’t allow at first. Scaling was one thing, being able to draw and go inside things … This is where my abstract VR environments came about. The root of it was trying to get my hand drawn esthetic into the digital world because I felt like CGI was kind of too precise, too clean. Also, I knew I wasn’t a good modeler! But energy? expression? Yeah, I can work with these kind of things.
A: What made you switch to Unity3D?
S: The switch to Unity occured about a year ago. Up to that point, I was really into Unreal. Unreal is gorgeous but everything I’ve ever wanted to do in VR, I’ve been able to do it in Unity3D! What is so cool about Unity is that there are so many toolkits and assets. It’s fantastic. The workflow between Unity and other programs like AnimVR for example is awesome. The TiltBrush toolkit was a big thing as well when it came out, and still is. I think at some point I started to realize that many art programs are made with Unity. Since I made the switch, Unity has been very good for me artistically. I cobble together enough codes and things to do what I want. Although if I had a developer to work with, it would probably take us half an hour to do what takes me a week. All I do is copy and paste, and deciphering somebody’s else tutorial. I wish I could generate the code, sit down and just write it. Back in 2000, I took my very first programming class. A C programming class at one of the community colleges here in Seattle. The hardest part for me was to find how to save to the floppy drive so I could turn in my assignment. I ended up getting an A in the class, the teacher was pretty generous. I just didn’t know about computers you know! Even a simple thing like accessing a directory. This is when I realized that it would be hard for me to make video games! But, with the advent of game engines that allowed for modding content, I was able to focus more on the art and gameplay and not so much on the coding. Now I understand a bit more of it. Because in Unity you can look at the code and understand it better. Indeed, I spend a lot time extracting out bits of code written by others.
A: How do you distribute your content? How would you envision a possible pipeline for VR art creators to distribute their work and generate revenue from it?
S: I don’t know. One of the avenues I have a little success with is licensing my content. For example, the Pacific Science Center asked for my VR painting N001. That was a really encouraging experience and I’d like to pursue more of that. But it’s hard to get on people’s radar. On a side note, I find it a little bit discouraging to see the platform Google Poly encouraging people to upload content for free, for people to download for free for use in their projects, for free. I think it could be a dangerous path as it seems to devalue the work of the creators.
A: True. At the same time that is so great to be able to import so many different 3D models in VR programs such as TiltBrush, AnimVR, Quill, TheWaveVR, etc. Which makes me think of your article on playing with toys in VR. Can you tell us more about it?
S: Sure. It’s a very simple idea that I had when I was playing with what I call my Moebius surfer. I was trying to film it, moving it around, when I realized that, in VR, I could have all the toys ever made. For years, I’ve played with toys by moving them around, interacting, setting up a scene, creating stories. To all the collectors out there, scan your toys so we can play with it in VR! [laughs] Honestly, right now there should be someone at Mattel running one of these high-end scanners and digitizing their whole line of toys. It would not even have to be articulated, a lot of toys aren’t articulated. What about every Hot Wheels cars ever made? Crap, Star Wars! They could do the complete collection! Who’s working on that project? it’s a no brainer. We should be able to buy all the Star Wars toys as VR models. Imagine having your entire range of Star Wars toys when you put your headset on, building out your scenes and playing them… I think there’s a market there for toys that could be enjoyed in VR. And especially in AR. You could have your working space, or wherever your kids play with their toys, saved virtually. When they’d put the headset back, they’d find all their toys again, all mapped to the room.
A: It makes me think of the recently released movie, Ready Player One, which re-enacts various fictional characters issued from 80’s and 90’s popular culture. The idea of an immense library where I would find all the toys ever made is very seducing, I have to admit.
S: I think the appeal for the original scan of a toy is that there’s at least a purchase point for that file. It’s probably going to be a file that is hard to hack but I can see the mashups happening. They kind of let that happen already anyway. There are also people doing amazing physical model kits (the kind you assemble with glue and paint) that would be amazing to see in VR. Those companies should be leveraging those assets and selling “virtual” versions (3d) for AR/VR. model assets. I was looking at really cool armored robots the other day. The kit was like $270. Damn, I want to play with that cool sculpted sci-fi model in VR!
A: Are you working toward animating your artwork in VR?
S: Absolutely. I like to use AnimVR a lot and I’ve started to experiment with edge detection in Unity. Of course, it’s insane to use edge detection in VR, it’s not a best practice at all. But it looks really freaking cool, especially with the AnimVR Unity toolkit. (See the pop art video). It’s not perfect yet though. It’s a little bit ham fisted, some things don’t show up and it’s kind of hard to get a real finesse. I think this will become a standard feature for programs such as AnimVR and Quill. People do really nice things when they paint with shading and stuff, but there’s something about having that edge. All of a sudden it gives this weird sort of flat dimension. Your mind can’t really wrap around it. It seems to have volume, but because everything is the same color it feels flat.
A: How would you like to see the tools evolve, for example, Tilt Brush?
S: I think TiltBrush will be iconic. It’s going to be in the Museum of Modern Art someday. Twenty years from now people will be doing retro TiltBrush drawings: “Oh such an old school TiltBrush, that’s cool, love it!” Now, I love TiltBrush but I’d love to see a Pro version with customizable brushes! The interface is super slick, you can bring things in, scale them, you can mockup a VR experience, etc. The problem is that you can’t export that out. For example, if you have models that you want to bring in TiltBrush, there’s some hoops you must jump through to get to bring in the texture. It’s a little bit tricky to get textures to show up in TiltBrush from an imported model. When you place the models in your scene and export it out to Unity, it doesn’t bring those assets along with it. You must rebuild it all and kind of lose that sort of freedom of designing in VR. At least this is how it was the last time I tried. Maybe as of today it has changed! I really love these tools but it can be a bit tricky as Unity versions change, and things you were just getting used to no longer work. I have like eight versions of Unity installed on my computer (laughs) because I have older projects that I am still working on that don’t work in newer versions. But it’s still amazing I can make anything, so I can’t complain. I’m just looking forward to the seamless workflow and programs like AnimVR are really embracing that. When TiltBrush released their SDK, that really opened a lot of possibilities. And it works! It still blows me away that I can bring audio reactive strokes from TiltBrush into Unity.
A: What was your last experiment about?
S: My last experiment was importing 3D models made in Medium into Unity. To see what it would look like with different effects on it. Medium comes with a ton of stamps, prefabs, primitives, and things. It’s nice to use that to create spaceships for example. When I first tried to add the edge detection I was thrilled. I’m a fan of that aesthetic. I love it when it has that effect, this Moebius kind of look.
“I’ve recently loaded a sketch of a weird character made in Gravity Sketch into Mixamo and that is pretty cool too. To be able to use the motion capture files that they have, download my thing, import it in Unity, and see it working, that’s sweet. Specially for artists and creatives who start now getting the building blocks. Someday we won’t have to know how to rig characters and concentrate on the art side of it. It has already come a long way over the last two years.”
A: Thank you Scott, I can’t wait to see more of your work!
S: Thank you! It was an honor!