You should see the elevators at Microsoft's big London office. No buttons in them. Not a one. I raced in, bound for the fifth floor, and realised after an awkward pause that this elevator was only going to the second floor. An elevator that only goes to the second door? It turned out that it was only going to the second floor because the person who called it was only going to the second floor. He was stood over by the window wondering what I was up to. Welcome to the future, where you can crash someone's elevator party.
What I should have done, of course, is wait in the elevator bay and use a small panel in the centre of the space to select my floor of choice. An elevator would then be assigned to me, and once inside, it would take me, and only me, to the floor I wanted. Valet service. I did not expect to find this in an elevator.
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"Your elevators are very confusing," I suggested when I finally got to Microsoft. But it turns out that the man I was meeting did not agree. They're amazing, he explained. You get used to them and then all other elevators are rubbish. I am paraphrasing, because this article is not really about elevators, but he laid out a glorious scenario where you check in at the front desk in the lobby and by the time you get to the elevator bay, your private elevator is already waiting for you. Valet service! This was the world this man from Microsoft already lived in. This was the sparkling water he drank every day.
I mention this only because it was mildly concerning. What does a futuristic elevator do? It confuses you, until you adapt to it, at which point every other elevator on the planet becomes inferior, and, over time, every other elevator becomes confusing in its own primitive way. And I mention this only because the man I was meeting at Microsoft has a fascinating job, working on a team that is reimagining MS Paint for the modern era. But wait: a man who spends enough time around fancy valet-service elevators? What are they going to do to MS Paint?
Quirky, lovable joke that it is, MS Paint is not something you want to mess with. A recent internal investigation at Microsoft suggested that this basic but enduringly accessible art package has around 120 million monthly users - and they can't all, like me, be using it to resize screenshots. Then there's the legacy of the product to consider. The night before I went to meet the MS Paint guy, I told my wife I was going to meet the MS Paint guy. She was genuinely starstruck. "I love MS Paint," she said. (I am paraphrasing again.) "When I was a kid I would play on it for hours just messing about with the brushes and shapes and whatnot."
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Amazingly, I realised that I had done this too: long unplanned evenings at university, zoning out with the only thing my computer did that wasn't Word. I asked around the office. A lot of people did this. And they did it for two reasons. For one thing, MS Paint was always just there. For another, it was so incredibly, mindlessly easy to use. You almost couldn't help but use it. Maybe, some tiny, remote, forgotten part of me is using MS Paint right now.
So it turns out that I have a lot of skin in the game when it comes to an update for MS Paint. I have a serious position in the market. We all do.
The man from the development team explained to me that the objective this time around was to treat 3D art the way that the original paint had treated 2D art. 3D? That sounds ominous. The elevators are looming large in this conversation already.
But he also said that the objective was to retain MS Paint's unfussy usability, its pick-up-and-mess-aboutness. If Paint 3D, as it is inevitably known, doesn't have that, then what use is it? It's not meant to replace Maya or any of those other professional 3D art packages. It's meant to offer something for the dabbler. It's meant to use words that people actually understand. Textures do not speak of albedo or specularity, but of matte, gloss, dull metal, polished metal. Pen types are selected from a list of easily identifiable caricatures.
Let's start with those pen types, because it's where the demo started. All present and correct - but all with an attention to detail that you might not have expected. The pencil here has a bit of paper grain to the lead you lay down. The paint shows track marks left by individual bristles - even though there are no bristles!. The fountain pen takes velocity into account as ink hits the screen: you can Gerald Scarfe it up good and proper. The Crayon is just as annoying to use as a real crayon: lots of bumpy white spaces.
(I asked, incidentally, why even a squiggle in Paint 3D looks more beautiful than a squiggle in real life. The answer: algorithms. Paint - and it is by no means alone in this capacity - is doing you a favour and smoothing out your movements very subtly as you draw. But even here, you can sidestep it, by using a pixel-pen, which shows you the reality of your horrible handiwork.)
After all that glorious familiarity, the switch to 3D is surprisingly painless. You can select a bunch of basic 3D shapes, which then pop into the screen with a nice little wobble to remind you of their three dimensions. You can rotate them, scale them, and even combine them with a few clicks, adding a cylinder to a cone to make a tree, for example. You can clone them and spam them all over the place, and you can even press and hold a button that allows you to understand their depth relationship to each other: the screen basically tilts a little bit and you get a view of their position in space. I am doing a bad job of explaining this, but it doesn't matter, because Paint 3D wordlessly does a rather good job of explaining it.
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Better yet, there are 3D doodling options, both sharp edge and soft edge being catered for. Soft edge sees the sketching of a quick cloud, say, the outline becoming smooth and podgy as a pillow when it's completed. The sharp edge sees a handful of clicks turned into a lightning bolt, suddenly thick and vivid in gold metal, which is easily inserted into the cloud. Textures are added instantly, and you can even draw on these objects with a brush, and the brush will follow the geometry in real time. It is quite something.
Speaking of textures, Paint 3D, like LittleBigPlanet, wants you to think of them in terms of stickers. Draw a ball on the screen and slap a sticker of some glasses over it, and it is a delight to watch the sticker follow the geometry of the ball even as you are placing it. Any piece of 2D art can become a sticker, and once in place you can clone, repaste, resize, do absolutely all of that jazz. It is great for getting simple texturing done quickly - I say that as if I have ever done non-simple texturing - and it's also great for, you know, messing around, zoning out with Paint, just like in the old days. You can even make textures 3D on their own.
You can export your 3D stuff in a range of different formats, and you can slot them straight into stuff like Unity. (I say you, and maybe you can. I'm the guy who just crashed someone else's elevator party so maybe I'll sit that whole part of it out.) You can also import 3D assets from the community, remix them anyway you want and then send them back out there. (Paint 3D will record the lineage of a piece of 3D art as it travels back and forth between remixers.)
It is pretty dazzling, if I'm honest, although the reviews on the Windows Store may make you think otherwise. I think it depends what you're coming to Paint 3D for. It's not the most elaborate or powerful 3D modelling tool. In fact, I gather it's relatively basic when compared to the top-tier stuff. But it's the most accessible, the most playful. It is designed for kids and bored grown-ups who are messing around for a few minutes to kill time.
Oh yes, one last thing: that Windows Store part? If you have Windows 10, I am pretty sure you actually have Paint 3D already, and if you're like me, you may not even be aware that you do.
"Yes, that," says the man from Microsoft as he calls me an elevator. "We have to get a bit better at that part."