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Virtual Art Sessions


Six artists were invited to paint, design, and sculpt in VR. This is the process for how we recorded their sessions, converted the data, and presented it in real-time with web browsers.

What a time to be alive! With the introduction of virtual reality as a consumer product, new and unexplored possibilities are being discovered. Tilt Brush, a Google product available on the HTC Vive, allows you to draw in three dimensional space. When we tried Tilt Brush for the first time, that feeling of drawing with motion-tracked controllers coupled with the presence of being "in a room with super-powers" lingers with you; there really isn't an experience quite like being able to draw in the empty space all around you.

The Data Arts Team at Google was presented with the challenge of showcasing this experience to those without a VR headset, on the web where Tilt Brush doesn't yet operate. To that end, the team brought in a sculptor, an illustrator, a concept designer, a fashion artist, an installation artist, and street artists to create artwork in their own style within this new medium.

Recording Drawings in Virtual Reality

Built in Unity, the Tilt Brush software itself is a desktop application that uses room-scale VR to track your head position (head mounted display, or HMD) and the controllers in each of your hands. Artwork created in Tilt Brush is by default exported as a .tilt file. To bring this experience to the web, we realized we needed more than just the artwork data. We worked closely with the Tilt Brush team to modify Tilt Brush so it exported undo/delete actions as well as the artist's head and hand positions at 90 times a second.

When drawing, Tilt Brush takes your controller position and angle and converts multiple points over time into a "stroke". You can see an example here. We wrote plugins that extracted these strokes and output them as raw JSON.

  "metadata": {  
    "BrushIndex": [  
  "actions": [  
      "type": "STROKE",  
      "time": 12854,  
      "data": {  
        "id": 0,  
        "brush": 0,  
        "b_size": 0.081906750798225,  
        "color": [  
        "points": [  
              "t": 12854,  
              "p": 0.25791856646538,  
              "pos": [  
            }, ...many more points  
    }, ... many more actions 

The above snippet outlines the format of the sketch JSON format.

Here, each stroke is saved as an action, with a type: "STROKE". In addition to stroke actions, we wanted to show an artist making mistakes and changing their mind mid-sketch, so it was critical to save "DELETE" actions which serve as either erase or undo actions for an entire stroke.

Basic information for each stroke is saved, so the brush type, brush size, color rgb are all collected.

Finally, each vertex of the stroke is saved out and that includes the position, angle, time, as well as the controller's trigger pressure strength (noted as p within each point).

Note that the rotation is a 4-component quaternion. This is important later when we render the strokes out to avoid gimbal lock.

Playing Back Sketches with WebGL

In order to show the sketches in a web browser, we used THREE.js and wrote geometry generation code that mimicked what Tilt Brush does under the hood.

While Tilt Brush produces triangle strips in real-time based on the user's hand motion, the entirety of the sketch is already "finished" by the time we show it on the web. This allows us to bypass much of the real-time calculation and bake the geometry on load.

Each pair of vertices in a stroke produce a direction vector (the blue lines connecting each point as shown above, moveVector in the code snippet below). Each point also contain an orientation, a quaternion that represent the controller's current angle. To produce a triangle strip, we iterate over each of these points producing normals that are perpendicular to the direction and controller orientation.

The process for computing the triangle strip for each stroke is nearly identical to the code used in Tilt Brush:

const V_UP = new THREE.Vector3( 0, 1, 0 );  
const V_FORWARD = new THREE.Vector3( 0, 0, 1 );

function computeSurfaceFrame( previousRight, moveVector, orientation ){  
  const pointerF = V_FORWARD.clone().applyQuaternion( orientation );

  const pointerU = V_UP.clone().applyQuaternion( orientation );

  const crossF = pointerF.clone().cross( moveVector );  
  const crossU = pointerU.clone().cross( moveVector );

  const right1 = inDirectionOf( previousRight, crossF );  
  const right2 = inDirectionOf( previousRight, crossU );

  right2.multiplyScalar( Math.abs( moveVector ) ) );

  const newRight = ( right1.clone().add( right2 ) ).normalize();  
  const normal = moveVector.clone().cross( newRight );  
  return { newRight, normal };  

function inDirectionOf( desired, v ){  
  return desired ) >= 0 ? v.clone() : v.clone().multiplyScalar(-1);  

Combining the stroke direction and orientation by themselves return mathematically ambiguous results; there could be multiple normals derived and would often yield a "twist" in the geometry.

When iterating over the points of a stroke, we maintain a "preferred right" vector and pass this into the function computeSurfaceFrame(). This function gives us a normal from which we can derive a quad in the quad strip, based on the direction of the stroke (from last point to current point), and the orientation of the controller (a quaternion). More importantly, it also returns a new "preferred right" vector for the next set of computations.

After generating quads based on the control points of each stroke, we fuse the quads by interpolating their corners, from one quad to the next.

function fuseQuads( lastVerts, nextVerts) {  
  const vTopPos = lastVerts[1].clone().add( nextVerts[0] ).multiplyScalar( 0.5 
  const vBottomPos = lastVerts[5].clone().add( nextVerts[2] ).multiplyScalar( 
0.5 );

  lastVerts[1].copy( vTopPos );  
  lastVerts[4].copy( vTopPos );  
  lastVerts[5].copy( vBottomPos );  
  nextVerts[0].copy( vTopPos );  
  nextVerts[2].copy( vBottomPos );  
  nextVerts[3].copy( vBottomPos );  

Fused quads

Fused quads.
Each quad also contain UVs which are generated as a next step. Some brushes contain a variety of stroke patterns to give the impression that every stroke felt like a different stroke of the paint brush. This is accomplished using _texture atlasing, _where each brush texture contain all the possible variations. The correct texture is selected by modifying the UV values of the stroke.

function updateUVsForSegment( quadVerts, quadUVs, quadLengths, useAtlas, 
atlasIndex ) {  
  let fYStart = 0.0;  
  let fYEnd = 1.0;

  if( useAtlas ){  
    const fYWidth = 1.0 / TEXTURES_IN_ATLAS;  
    fYStart = fYWidth * atlasIndex;  
    fYEnd = fYWidth * (atlasIndex + 1.0);  

  //get length of current segment  
  const totalLength = quadLengths.reduce( function( total, length ){  
    return total + length;  
  }, 0 );

  //then, run back through the last segment and update our UVs  
  let currentLength = 0.0;  
  quadUVs.forEach( function( uvs, index ){  
    const segmentLength = quadLengths[ index ];  
    const fXStart = currentLength / totalLength;  
    const fXEnd = ( currentLength + segmentLength ) / totalLength;  
    currentLength += segmentLength;

    uvs[ 0 ].set( fXStart, fYStart );  
    uvs[ 1 ].set( fXEnd, fYStart );  
    uvs[ 2 ].set( fXStart, fYEnd );  
    uvs[ 3 ].set( fXStart, fYEnd );  
    uvs[ 4 ].set( fXEnd, fYStart );  
    uvs[ 5 ].set( fXEnd, fYEnd );



Four textures in a texture atlas for oil brush

Four textures in a texture atlas for oil brush

In Tilt Brush

In Tilt Brush

In WebGL

In WebGL

Since each sketch has unbounded number of strokes, and the strokes won't need to modified in run-time, we pre-compute the stroke geometry ahead of time and merge them into one single mesh. Even though each new brush type must be its own material, that still reduces our draw calls to one per brush.

The entire sketch above is performed in one draw call in WebGL

To stress test the system, we created a sketch that took 20 minutes filling the space with as many vertices as we could. The resulting sketch still played at 60fps in WebGL.

Since each of the original vertices of a stroke also contained time, we can easily play back the data. Re-calculating the strokes per-frame would be really slow, so instead we pre-computed the entire sketch on load and simply revealed each quad when it was time to do so.

Hiding a quad simply meant collapsing its vertices to the 0,0,0 point. When the time has reached the point at which the quad is supposed to be revealed, we reposition the vertices back into place.

An area for improvement is manipulating the vertices entirely on the GPU with shaders. The current implementation places them by looping through the vertex array from the current timestamp, checking which vertices need to be revealed and then updating the geometry. This puts a lot of load on the CPU which causes the fan to spin as well as wasting battery life.

Recording the Artists

We felt that the sketches themselves wouldn't be enough. We wanted to show the artists inside their sketches, painting each brushstroke.

To capture the artists, we used Microsoft Kinect cameras to record the depth data of the artists' body in space. This gives us the ability to show their three dimensional figures in the same space the drawings appear.

Since the artist's body would occlude itself preventing us from seeing what's behind it, we used a double Kinect system, both at opposite sides of the room pointing at the center.

In addition to the depth information, we also captured the color information of the scene with standard DSLR cameras. We used the excellent DepthKit software to calibrate and merge the footage from the depth camera and the color cameras. The Kinect is capable of recording color, but we chose to use DSLRs because we could control the exposure settings, use beautiful high-end lenses, and record in high definition.

To record the footage, we built a special room to house the HTC Vive, the artist and the camera. All surfaces were covered with material that absorbed infrared light to give us a cleaner point cloud (duvetyne on the walls, ribbed rubber matting on the floor). In case the material showed up in the point cloud footage, we chose black material so it wouldn't be as distracting as something that was white.

The resulting video recordings gave us enough information to project a particle system. We wrote some additional tools in openFrameworks to further clean up the footage, in particular removing the floors, walls and ceiling.

All four channels of a recorded video session (two color channels above and two depth below)

In addition to showing the artists, we wanted to render the HMD and the controllers in 3D as well. This was not only important for showing the HMD in the final output clearly (the HTC Vive's reflective lenses were throwing off Kinect's IR readings), it gave us points of contact for debugging the particle output and lining up the videos with the sketch.

The head mounted display, controllers, and particles lined up

This was done by writing a custom plugin into Tilt Brush that extracted the positions of the HMD and controllers each frame. Since Tilt Brush runs at 90fps, tons of data streamed out and a sketch's input data was upwards of 20mb uncompressed. We also used this technique to capture events that aren't recorded in the typical Tilt Brush save file, such as when the artist selects an option on the tools panel and the position of the mirror widget.

In processing the 4TB of data we captured, one of the biggest challenges was aligning all the different visual/data sources. Each video from a DSLR camera need to be aligned with the corresponding Kinect, so that the pixels aligned in space as well as time. Then the footage from these two camera rigs needed to be aligned with each other to form a single artist. Then we needed to align our 3d artist with the data captured from their drawing. Phew! We wrote browser based tools to help with most of these tasks, and you can try them yourself here.

Once the data was aligned, we used some scripts written in NodeJS to process it all and output a video file and series of JSON files, all trimmed and synchronized. To reduce the file size, we did three things. First, we reduced the accuracy of each floating point number so that they are at maximum 3 decimal's worth of precision. Second, we cut the number of points by a third to 30fps, and interpolated the positions client-side. Finally, we serialized the data so instead of using plain JSON with key/value pairs, an order of values is created for position and rotation of the HMD and controllers. This cut the file size down to just shy of 3mb which was acceptable to deliver over the wire.

Since the video itself is served as an HTML5 video element that is read in by a WebGL texture to become particles, the video itself needed to play hidden in the background. A shader converts the colors in the depth imagery into positions in 3D space. James George has shared a great example of how you can do with with footage straight out of DepthKit.

iOS has restrictions on inline video playback, which we assume is to prevent users from being pestered by web video ads that autoplay. We used a technique similar to other workarounds on the web, which is to copy the video frame into a canvas and manually update the video seek time, every 1/30 of a second.

videoElement.addEventListener( 'timeupdate', function(){  
  videoCanvas.paintFrame( videoElement );      

function loopCanvas(){

  if( videoElement.readyState === videoElement.HAVE\_ENOUGH\_DATA ){

    const time =;  
    const elapsed = ( time - lastTime ) / 1000;

    if( videoState.playing && elapsed >= ( 1 / 30 ) ){  
      videoElement.currentTime = videoElement.currentTime + elapsed;  
      lastTime = time;  



frameLoop.add( loopCanvas );

Our approach had the unfortunate side-effect of significantly lowering iOS framerate since the copying of pixel buffer from video to canvas is very CPU-intensive. To get around this, we simply served smaller sized versions of the same videos which allow at least 30fps on an iPhone 6.


The general consensus for VR software development as of 2016 is to keep geometries and shaders simple so that you can run at 90+fps in an HMD. This turned out to be a really great target for WebGL demos since the techniques used in Tilt Brush map very nicely to WebGL.

While web browsers displaying complex 3D meshes is not exciting in and of itself, this was a proof of concept that cross pollination of VR work and the web is entirely possible.