Project Dali: Building an Endless Creative Canvas with Virtual Reality

As an artist, I love the tactile connections I make while creating in the analog world. I also love digital, but there’s a persistent, maddening frustration as I go between the two worlds: digital often feels like a more constrained tool. I think it could be a reflection of the engineering mindset. Instead of creating from the idea in your mind and using your body to work directly with the canvas or camera or clay, digital requires so much extra work just to figure out how to get things done. Things in the physical world, on the other hand, are more malleable and forgiving when you use them to accommodate your vision. This is where my newest research comes in. In Project Dali, we’re building a creative tool that uses the spatial and gestural mechanics of Virtual Reality (VR).

Now in its early stages, Project Dali is an immersive drawing experience in the virtual world. Artists use custom brushes to create, and move around their creations, in three dimensions—they can literally walk through their own paintings. The experience is so surreal that we couldn’t resist calling it Project Dali. And the technology experience is completely new: as users, we’re freed from the mouse and keyboard as our proxies. We’re back into our physical space, but with a new level of expressiveness beyond the flat image. What else can it do? Well, that’s still unfolding.

Research on the Road Less Traveled

We’ve launched Project Dali at Adobe’s studio at the Minnesota Street Project. The artists in residence here span a range of analog to digital processes, but to them these are just means to an end — their personal expression. They’re artists on the road less traveled, and their unconventional techniques are great sources of inspiration as we give shape to Project Dali. As we test and share our research and explorations with our fellow artists we’re dreaming big and thinking about how we can integrate their philosophies and approaches to the Project Dali environment.

Take fellow artist Maya Gold. Maya’s art is based on a subtractive style—she puts paint on a canvas and tries to get back to the white or beige of the canvas by subtracting paint in the moments while it’s still wet. As Maya and I talked about the potential of VR, her perspective was a revelation. I hadn’t considered the importance of deleting and erasing; that there’s a need for more than one kind of eraser, and for a temporal element because paint isn’t wet forever and its viscosity changes over time. With Maya, I started thinking about subtraction and time as necessary elements for VR creative tools.

I had another generative conversation with a woodworker at Minnesota Street. As soon as we began discussing how to connect straight lines in three-dimensional space using VR, his spidey senses kicked in. We began imagining how we could change the lengths of objects in a way that you can’t with real wood, but that would be revolutionary for designing something like the perfect bookcase. Here, VR opens the possibility of a virtual representation of the mathematical thinking, and mathematical desire, that every woodworker has in his or her mind. These kinds of conversations, and our design-in-the-open philosophy, are shaping the direction of Project Dali.

It’s not only artists. I’m also inspired by how kids use technology. Just observe a child with a phone or an iPad. As they investigate, they unearth potentials through their natural gestures and interactions. They learn things we don’t have to teach them. This is the kind of experience I think we can capture with VR—a natural, joyful unfolding through exploration.

Tech that Gets You, and Gets Out of the Way

I don’t think of Project Dali as digital or analog. It’s something that mixes the two and comes out completely unique. It could incorporate texture (think of the exquisite feel of graphite) and time (your paint is drying) with the unending flexibility of digital. It takes art that used to feel static and lets us manipulate it in three-dimensional space. In the process, the art becomes different, magical.

My vision for Project Dali, and the new frontier of VR as a creative canvas, is to keep moving toward technology that understands what we, as artists, want, and then gets gracefully out of our way. One of the things I love most so far is seeing artists become completely lost in the process. There are no mediating metaphors like files or layers. It’s just flow, with no boundaries.

I’m starting to think about it like a musical instrument: If you are a musician, your instrument enables your creativity; it doesn’t stand between you and the idea in your head. And just like with VR, you learn by playing.

Learn more about Project Dali and all of the things Adobe shared at MAX this year including our Sneaks. And find out what the Adobe team and our fellow artists are doing at the Minnesota Street Project.