One of the most dazzling demos I ever saw at a tech trade show happened more than twenty years ago, at a Macworld Expo in Boston. It involved a new software package — then called Fractal Design Painter — which let Mac users create digital art which replicated the look of real-world art supplies such as watercolor and charcoal with great fidelity. At the time, the whole idea was a tad mind-blowing.
There aren’t all that many applications from the early 1990s which are still alive and well, but that product, which is now known as Corel Painter, is one of them. And at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Corel is showing off an upcoming version of Painter with a whole new twist: you can paint by waving your fingers around in the air, without ever touching a mouse, a screen or a Wacom pen.
The technology which makes the demo possible is Leap Motion’s upcoming motion-control gizmo for Windows PCs and Macs. Scheduled to ship on May 13 for $70, it’s a 3-inch-long USB device which enables Kinect-like control of a computer through gestures. But Leap Motion says that its technology is far more exacting than Microsoft’s Xbox add-on: it can track all ten of your fingers individually with precision of up to 1/100th of a millimeter.
Corel gave its demonstration inside Leap Motion’s tent across the street from the Austin Convention Center, which was filled with examples of applications the tech can enable. The company had Jeremy Sutton, an expert Painter artist, stand in front of a computer and paint — usually with his fingertips alone, although at one point he showed that he could also do it while grasping a paintbrush. He used both a special Leap-enabled version of full-blown Painter which Corel doesn’t plan to offer immediately and Painter Freestyle, a simplified edition which Leap Motion owners will be able to download for free from Leap’s app store.
Sutton waxed enthusiastic about the experience of painting in mid-air as he worked, and told me that he could control Painter’s tools very precisely. He’s created some spectacular artwork with Painter in the past, but his SXSW demo, at least when I dropped by, involved fiddling around with some photos of Austin, not producing ambitious art from scratch. So it’s too early to declare that Leap Motion represents an um, great leap forward for digital art. But it does look like fun — and it’s nice to see that Painter is, once again, taking digital artistry where it’s never gone before.