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How we set out to help people bring their ideas to life

Once upon a time, a group of designers took on the challenge of truly democratizing digital 3D creation...

How we set out to help people bring their ideas to life
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In 2013, Oluwaseyi and I teamed up to work on a thesis project while attending the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London… Yes, Gravity Sketch was our master’s project!

As designers and returning professionals we had first hand experience with the challenges of trying to communicate a three dimensional idea quickly and effectively, so we decided to try and do something about it. Our thesis question was: How can we enable people to “materialize” their ideas in the most intuitive way? As immediate and natural as if you were pulling the idea directly from your head. The solution could have been ANYTHING – VR and other immersive technologies weren’t even on our radar at the time. Our initial goal was to understand what goes on in people’s minds when they are going through a creative process. To date this is the beauty of the methodology we follow at Gravity Sketch, we think human first and machine second. We use technology to enable the experiences we design for our users, it is a consequence of the process, not the starting point.

Pulling an idea from your head
We went all-in gaining insights on how the human mind operates when going through a creative process. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences really resonated with us and became a key ingredient in the creation of Gravity Sketch. 

The theory states that we all have nine different intelligences, out of which, we develop some more than others; depending on who we are and what we have been exposed to throughout our lives. It turns out that people in creative fields, such as design, have a very strong spatial intelligence, however, the tools that we currently use to create digital 3D content are heavily based on logic, mathematics, and linguistics… Wait, what?

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences
Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences
This reliance on language and mathematics in the world of digital 3D design bothered us so much that we decided to start from scratch, embarking on the beautiful journey of creating a tool specifically made for spatial thinkers. 

In addition to the typical design folk, we looked into other fields that rely on the use of space to create, like dance and performance art. Surprisingly, these disciplines also use sketching as a form of communication! Artists doodle to visualize and annotate dance moves when planning a choreography. This highlighted the dependence on drawing for many other creatives. As humans we have been representing our 3D ideas through 2D mediums for thousands of years; cavemen expressed themselves graphically, ancient Egyptians created hieroglyphics… We have a long history of working in 2D to share our 3D ideas.

Image of two dancers alongside a sketch of their choreograph

If you think about it, every idea starts with a sketch. From the chair you are sitting on, the device you are reading this on, to the buildings that surround you. Our most common interface is the “pen and paper” – it is simple, flexible, and allows for a pretty diverse use of materials. This is a great medium for the previous reasons, however many of us are intimidated by it and scared of sketching, a cultural trauma embedded in us at an early age when we were told that we “can’t” draw well or weren’t creative because we couldn’t sketch using the laws of perspective. Crazy, I know! The truth is that perfectly representing a 3D idea through a 2D sketch is extremely hard and requires skill, which takes years to develop primarily through repetition. To master perspective sketching we need to train our brain into translating a 3D object into a 2D projection. Training your mind to think in planes in order to demonstrate a mastery of this skill is part of being a designer; a debatable topic to leave for another day. However, there are many different people involved in the process of turning an idea into a physical product. How can people effectively communicate if we don’t share a common language? Some sketch, some talk, some make gestures in the end we each create a different mental image of the idea we are trying to bring to life.

Industrial design sketches

When we try to bring these ideas into some 3D form things get complicated. The digital development process is restrictive, linear, and requires years of training and practice to master the skills needed to effectively use CAD (computer aided design) tools. The complexity in the digital 3D visualization phase of any creative process leads to poor collaboration often resulting in several people huddling over each other pointing at a 30” computer screen trying to collaborate in the shaping of the digital representation.

Screenshot of Alias 2013
Screenshot of Autodesk Alias 2013

Additionally, the fact that you need to follow a linear process truncates the creative flow, limiting the space for creative exploration at the digital phase. We believe there needs to be space to get lost and freely express yourself unrestricted.

Gravity Sketch software experience

All of this theory is great… But learning through making is in our DNA, so we went ahead and developed a series of experiments to challenge all of the above and the various hypotheses formulated during our research. The insights gathered would lead us to develop our design pillars, which would end up shaping Gravity Sketch into the intuitive experience it is today. These pillars continue to guide our development.

Gravity Sketch’s Design Pillars: Physicality, Immediacy, Simple Set of Rules

So how did all of this turn into a 3D design tool? The most relevant experiment we did was the “Layers Cube”, a stack of small acrylic squares that serve as surfaces to draw cross sections of a shape. The user would visualize a shape, like a wine glass, then divide it into flat layers in their mind and draw each layer on one of the acrylic squares . Users were able to quickly and intuitively express the shape they imagined using this method. This experiment was a big success, all of the test subjects completed the task and could roughly recreate what they had in their heads.

Gravity Sketch layer cube experiment
Layers cube

We decided to scale this up and made a second cube, twice the size. The goal with this was to allow people to draw bigger and more detailed shapes. The result wasn’t as magical as the first cube. It became too heavy and cumbersome due to the many layers needed in order to complete a shape.

So we then asked ourselves, what if you only needed one layer of acrylic to sketch on, and once you had sketched on it you could move it but the lines would remain floating in space? Wait a minute, is it possible? Can we use an augmented reality headset to achieve this?

Keep in mind this was 2013, AR was pretty much non-existent, but of course that did not stop us from investigating and using a webcam as a placeholder while we could get our hands on an AR headset. Through multiple iterations, that layer of acrylic became the “Landing Pad”, a tablet that was used as the input device while using an AR headset, a place to LAND your ideas.

Gravity Sketch Landing Pad evolution
Landing Pad iterative evolution

The Landing Pad was a tablet that digitally captured your 2D sketch on a surface with controls which allowed you to move those strokes away from the drawing space in order to continue drawing and eventually form a 3D sketch with all of these strokes floating together in space. Genius right? 😉

Just kidding, it was a very simple solution which is what made it so good. Oh forgot to mention, it also worked with VR, the Oculus DK1 had just come out so we had to jump on that.

Gravity sketch Landing Pad testing
User testing of the Landing Pad

Gravity Sketch was officially presented to the world at the Royal College of Art Work in Progress Show in February of 2014, attracting the attention of multiple creatives imagining how they may use it in their practise. A few weeks later the project became viral, picking up the attention of Wired, Fast Company, Dezeen and Core 77. Even though we did not have the intention of starting a company, we realized we were onto something and it was our duty to bring it to life in hopes of empowering creatives all over the world with a democratized digital 3D creation tool. On September 22nd 2014 Gravity Sketch officially became a company and the next chapter in the story began; we’ll leave that for another day…

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