Ever since Google unveiled Cardboard several years ago, the company has had a clear goal of putting the power of virtual reality into the hands of anyone with a phone. One small example of this push is Sprayscape, an Android app that puts an artsy twist on the 360-degree camera. With Sprayscape, you can create bizarre VR spaces with your phone, giving you a taste of what mobile VR can offer.
Part of Google's ongoing effort to promote Android as a platform for unique research and creation is Android Experiments. These are apps or projects that use Android devices in unique ways, far outside the realm of calls, email, or Flappy Bird. At Google I/O, one such experiment used an Android phone to control a robotic pencil to produce contour drawings of anyone who stood in front of it. Another used a phone to play music by tapping sticky notes with chords written on them. These could be stuck to anything—me, that other guy, a large fake guitar, or pretty much anything.
Sprayscape is very much in this vein. It's not intended to be the next Instagram and isn't designed to compete for your attention. Instead, it's a cool idea brought to the masses along with encouragements for developers to examine the source code and build their own projects.
The app bills itself as "a perfectly imperfect VR-ish camera app for Android." This is equal parts explanation and disclaimer. There are aspects of Sprayscape that are difficult to use, and others that are downright confounding. Sometimes it's intentional, other times not so much. But in the end it's the experience that matters, and that's what Sprayscape delivers.
Smeared Face Sphere
You can install Sprayscape on just about any device. I used both a Nexus 5X and a Pixel C, although it was much easier to use on a smaller device with more camera functionality. With the Pixel C, controlling my camera view was much more difficult.
When you first fire up the app, you're dropped into a warped grid-space, like a torus or stretched-out sphere. Instructions appear, encouraging you to tap the screen. Doing so captures an ovoid image through your device's camera. Dotted lines urge you, map style, to move your device around and take more images. Pretty soon, you've created your first Scape, the app's name for a 360-degree photosphere.
If that were it, I probably wouldn't be reviewing the app. Photo-stitching software that takes still images from a standard camera and converts them into interactive spheres are hardly new. The venerable Photosynth is a case in point. Google itself has a very serviceable VR camera app already in the Google Play store called the Cardboard Camera, and other developers have already produced even more capable offerings.
The difference is that unlike those apps, Sprayscape does a bad job, and that's good. Bear with me now.
The app makes no effort to stitch individual images together. Instead of a neat, seamless view, it's a collage of colors, faces, and whatever else you point the camera at. You adjust the size of each image by tapping a button in the lower right corner; there are only three size settings and they are all oval-shaped. You can also toggle between selfie and rear-facing cameras.
I found the images produced on my Pixel C and Nexus 5X to be a bit blurry, as if the exposure were left on too long. Instead of capturing individual images, tap and hold the screen to create a colorful smear instead of a distinct picture. This effect reminded me of the fun and interesting ways that Windows 3.1 would crash.
This quirkiness is the crux of Sprayscape and it's completely intentional. The smeary, overlapping images are otherworldly. My first Scape, with warm oranges, my own face, and a half-glimpsed door, reminded me of surrealist art, like something out of a David Lynch film. All of the quirks of the app come together in the final product, a surprising and frequently bewildering creation. Like glitch art or vaporwave, my Sprayscape creations felt like they only partly came from me, with the rest contributed by an unseen digital influence.
Enter My Beautiful Nightmare
Once your Scape is complete, you can save by tapping the check mark. Saved Scapes live in your Google Drive, and if you think they look weird in the app just wait until you see them flattened out as JPGs. You can view all your Scapes by tapping the nested-squares button in the bottom left. However, I occasionally had some trouble finding my way back to this screen.
The app lets you share Scapes through Facebook and just about any other app that can access the Android share option. These are really just links to your Scapes, which are viewable as 3D spheres on the Web. But it's best experienced in actual VR. To that end, you can view your horrifying madness spheres on either a Cardboard headset or the forthcoming Daydream View VR headset.
Welcome to My David Lynch Orb
Sprayscape is a fun experiment and a neat toy to tinker with. Your friends will probably wonder what the heck you're posting, and you will probably be equally surprised with the results. I don't think people will create stunning works of art with Sprayscape, but it may encourage new ideas. Sprayscape doesn't promise much and offers few tools, but it's an avenue for spontaneous creation. Best of all, it requires no special permissions to run, so you can download and try it out without any risk.