Pursuing the ‘MS Paint’ of Volume

Pixel art continues to be a cherished medium even as digital art advances way beyond restriction in resolution or file size. There’s something charming about pixel art that’s hard to pin down. Part of it is nostalgia, part of it is its cleverness in visual problem-solving. But what really makes it special is its intentionality. The artist is forced to work at a microscopic level; every pixel represents a decision and the viewer is able to see and appreciate all of them.

It also doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most accessible mediums. MS Paint has come pre-installed on every Windows computer since forever. I know I wasn’t the only kid who stumbled upon it — almost accidentally — and fell in love with it immediately. I became mesmerized when I realized I could use it to make art like the kind in my favorite Gameboy games. So in making Volume Flipbook, I sought to create something that had a chance of evoking that same magical feeling.

A doodle in Volume Flipbook

3D Pixels (that aren’t voxels)

The idea for Volume Flipbook first came as I started developing content for Volume in Unity. Creating games and visuals for a volumetric display was an exciting and new experience, but I found myself wanting a way to precisely control every pixel on every slice. The way we handled calibration (and continue to handle it, although this might change soon) is through a Unity-specific process, so I knew whatever solution I’d arrive at would be a Unity-built app. But at the time, I figured I’d avoid reinventing the wheel and try integrating with Adobe Photoshop instead.

The original working title was Slicer 3D

My first experiment was to use one large canvas and split it into a 10x10 array of mini-canvases. On the vertical axis was the 10 slices within Volume. Horizontally, you had 10 frames of animation that would automatically loop at 12 fps. You’d save your image and the app would automatically start playing it in volume.

It served as a proof of concept, but it wasn’t great for creating anything substantial. The most fun to be had with it was scribbling all over the canvas and getting something that looked like volumetric rainfall.

I talk fondly about how MS Paint made pixel-art accessible for first-timers, and Adobe Flash did something similar for hand-drawn animation. So my approach shifted toward integrating with Adobe Animate (formerly Adobe Flash — an awkward rebranding I am still getting used to).

The idea was to let artists choose a slice for each layer using a keyword in the layer name. So a layer named Ball S1 would be rendered to slice 1, and a layer named Tree S2 would be rendered to slice 2, etc. This approach worked alright, but it still needed to go through Unity to produce a calibrated image. Rendering to video within Animate was outputting an MP4 file, so the artist also needed an external program (VLC was my go-to) to convert that to .ogg, the only Unity-loadable-at-runtime movie format.

I was getting great results with this! But at this point, I was still the only person testing this method, so I was blind to just how much friction existed in this workflow. It was made painfully clear to me when we took Volume to Maker Faire New York and I had a pretty difficult time trying to walk my own co-workers through the process, let alone visitors to the show. I became determined to make a drawing app for volume that was as smooth and accessible as possible: this became Volume Flipbook.

Limited Everything

I envisioned a limited palette, a limited toolset; the bare minimum to get someone drawing in Volume. It didn’t take long to get something passable up and running.

Volume Flipbook is still in early alpha. It only has half a GUI. It still requires hotkeys for most functions (which haven’t been properly documented yet except for on a sheet of A4 paper at the lab).

But it’s pretty sweet anyway. We’ve drawn all sorts of volumetric stuff with it: mountain ranges, Hokusai looking waves, castle turrets, evil dogs, people smoking cigarettes, worms. All in very little time and all using this half-started mess of a program. It leaves me hopeful that may be on our way to capturing the magic of MS Paint in Volume.

An idea for a game to come.

Coming off of my experiments in Photoshop and Animate, I have to say it feels great to be making content directly in Volume itself using traditional 2D input methods. In fact, one of the nicest elements of Volume Flipbook is that I can quickly do concept art for game ideas that I’d otherwise have a hard time conceptualizing in Volume.

Most importantly though, I’d love to hear what artists and creators everywhere want from the program. My aim is minimalism, but in that I’m aware I may just be caught up in the zeitgeist, so please, let me know what your ideal MS Paint for Volume would have! And head over to Looking Glass to find out what Volume’s all about!

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If you are interested in checking out Volume Flipbook and/or have any general ideas of what Volume Flipbook should be, shoot us an email at [email protected] 🙂 We may still have a few beta units lying around waiting to be loved.