From VR painting to an app that turns your iPad into a Cintiq, these are the tech developments that we’ve loved most in 2016.
Whether you’re a illustrator, designer or a VFX artist, we all rely on technology to produce our work in a form ready for an audience. Hardware and software are conduits from our creativity to finished forms – the tools and raw materials that turn the results of the physical (whether scans of the results of real-world crafts or just the movement of your hands) into digital forms ready for consumption anywhere in the world, or as a component in a wider whole.
The best new technologies are often those that make creativity seem effortless, where you can focus on the act of creation rather than the tool itself. Others let you create in ways that just weren’t possible before. Here we’ve collected our ten favourite pieces of new tech from 2016: new computers, apps and software, tools and more – some that you can get your hands on now and some are still in development.
2016 was the year that Apple’s computers really failed to impress. We’re glad that Apple finally launched a MacBook Pro as powerful as a year-old Dell Precision 5510 (above), but the lack of a touchscreen option disappoints – the relatively tiny strip of the Touch Bar seeming paltry next to a full touchscreen now that Adobe et al have refined their UIs to work really well with your fingers across them.
The iMac was also out-innovated, this time by Microsoft. The Surface Studio is essentially an iMac you can draw on with the Surface Pen, with a movable dial for your off-hand for shortcuts and adjusting parameters. It’s not out til January, but I had some hands-on time at Adobe Max last month and was rather impressed.
Also out in January for those who like to draw rather than use a mouse is Wacom’s MobileStudio Pro. This is Windows tablet for those who’d rather draw in Photoshop or Painter (or sculpt in ZBrush, according to Wacom, who think it’ll appeal to 3D artists as well as traditional digital ones) than in ProCreate on an iPad. There are 13- and 16-inch versions, both rather stylish looking as well as being great to draw on.
New apps and software
Speaking of drawing on tablets in Photoshop or Painter, one of our favourite apps of the year let you do this using an iPad Pro and Pencil. Duet Display Pro is a Mac or Windows application and an iPad app that turns your iPad Pro into a second (or third) monitor for a mere £17 a year. This lets you use your iPad Pro essentially as a Cintiq, attached to your laptop or desktop with the usual Lightning cable, and drawing with the Apple Pencil.
Adobe innovated a lot this year. Older applications like Photoshop and Illustrator many have gained few new tools – but it was brand new tools that really stood out. Adobe XD for creating app and website mockups and prototypes proved increasingly popular with digital and UX designers – even challenging the mighty Sketch (though updates to Sketch made it still the go-to tool for this kind of work). Project Felix is an interesting attempt to make combining 2D and 3D assets easier for traditional Photoshop users.
The company has also showed some groundbreaking things that are still in development at its Sneaks session at its Adobe Max conference – including the highly realistic paint engine Wetbrush and even an audio tools than can fake your speech based on listening to your voice (which is pretty frightening in itself).
Another tool that tried to make 3D creativity more accessible to artists using to drawing on paper or screen is Mental Canvas. As we saw in a demo from its creator, you draw with a pencil or brush as if you're on a layer in Photoshop (again, or Painter, ProCreate etc). What makes it special is that you can move around the drawing space in 3D, choosing the angle of your layer before you start drawing. Even if you're a 3D artist who knows subdivision surfaces from subsurface scattering, there's a trad-art feel to its output that would take a lot longer to create in Cinema 4D or Maya.
New ways to create
VR and AR offer a lot of potential – not only for experiencing creative projects but producing them too. This year we got hands-on with Google’s Tilt Brush 3D drawing/scupting app for the HTC Vive, where you use controllers to paint in 3D space inside a VR world – and was probably the most fun new creative tool we tried all year.
I also tried out HoloLens, which blends VR with the real-world to let you see 3D models in the real-world (aka AR, or augmented reality). It’s very much the early days of what’s possible with the HoloLens – both conceptually as well as technologically – but it’ll be interesting to see what’s developed for and with it next year.
And finally, one last wowing piece of tech – a car rig and accompanying tech that can essentially become any car you want – in any colour of configuration – using automated VFX.