14 Questions with Martin Lihs
Inventor of the Virtual Painting System
Interveiwed by T. Mikey
is a virtual spray painting system that incorporates the wireless
Nintendo Wii remote control into a pressure sensitive spray can
interface that allows users to paint digitally on a projected screen
through a Photoshop-like paint- ing program. The resulting application
looks and feels so amazingly true to genuine spray paint art, down to
custom virtual stencils, that you might not notice there are no fumes.
Lihs developed the WiiSpray system as his master’s thesis project while
studying art and design at the famed Bauhaus University in Weimar,
Germany, and was kind enough to talk with ARTisSpectrum Magazine about
Could you describe your background a lit- tle? You clearly have a design
background, but did you start as a spray artist and branch into
technical applications, or do you con- sider yourself more of an
electrical engineer wanting to update the spray media, or some- thing
“Yes, I have an art & design background…
I’ve been influenced by Art since I was a child. At that time I attended,
twice a week, a public art school in my hometown where I learned the
basic rules of drawing.A few years after the (Berlin) Wall came down,
everything was in transition and so it was an incredible time for young
people like me from East Germany.
At that time I became very in touch with the skateboarding and graffiti
scene. You asked me if I have ever drawn graffiti. Yes, of course I
did graffiti, but nothing really impressive. At this time I was more
into skateboarding and the electronic music scene.
Some time later, I felt that I’d like to do more with my creativity and I decided to pursue schooling for Art and Design. At
this time some new friends exposed me to computer graphics and media
art. So this totally changed my point of view as well as my work. But on
the other side I got into trouble with my teachers and their idea of
art. They tried to point me and my ideas more in the direction of
At the same time I spent a lot of time in Weimar with friends who already
studied Art and Media at the Bauhaus University. Right from the start, I
loved the concept/way of teaching at the Bauhaus University. It’s a
non-school based system, which wasn’t easy at the beginning – but it
helped me so much to find my own way to be creative. At university I
tried many things like radio, film and photography before I found my
profession in the interface design major. In the beginning I worked only
with software interfaces, interactive and web-based applications. My
first hardware-based interface and interactive installation I did in my
time as an exchange student at the Pratt Institute in New York City.
There I felt free to try new things and I decided to visit classes for
product design, electronics, interactive media and ceramics. Yes,
ceramics. And it was a lot of fun! Back in Germany I placed a strong
focus on developing my ideas of interface and interaction design, a
mixture of industrial, hardware, software and screen design. I think
with WiiSpray I’ve shown this idea perfectly. The idea was not to
replace the spray can but rather I felt that there was something missing
that could enter new virtual worlds.”
WiiSpray has elements of spray art mixed with Photoshop mixed with the Wii
Consol; was one or more of these sources the original inspiration be-
hind the idea for WiiSpray and how did you go about bring them all
together? WiiSpray was originally your thesis project, how did the
project begin and when did you feel you might have something with a
larger commercial application?
“During development in the spring of 2007, I, along with fellow student Frank
Matuse, completed Prototype One, forming the groundwork for the
WiiSpray. Upon consid- eration, I chose to further investigate this
project for my master’s thesis, developing an entirely new prototype,
known today as WiiSpray 2nd edition. Complete with new ideas as to how
the interface works, how the physi- cal model appears, and a new 3
dimensional interaction concept as well as the software that allows for
collabora- tive working over the internet and is now in a beta status,
it took the idea to a whole new level.
However, the original idea of the project was founded much sooner.
While doing an internship in Lisbon, I had met street and
graffiti artist “Target”. This caused me to develop an in-
terest in the medium of graffiti and the following questions arose:
it possible to create a tool that allows one or more people to interact
creatively independent of space and time? “Furthermore, is it possible
to exchange thoughts and ideas through this?
“Can people who have only been observers take part in the creation process?”
These questions and the “Nintendo Wii” technology were the basis for the resulting creative experiment.”
system goes beyond just the spray can interface, there are also
different nozzles, colors and even virtual stencils. Could you describe
your thought process in making the virtual system as close to actual
spray paint as possible? Have you worked with other spray artists in
order to design the system as authentically as possible, and make it
ver- satile for the many styles and techniques of the many spray artists
is the result of my master thesis – this means one person and three
months time to get it done and three more months for the theory and
you can imagine it was hardly possible to get it done in time. But in
the beginning I spoke with a lot of artists. After this I had to decide
what features were necessary – for the graffiti artist and for the
interface design. In the last six months I spoke again with graffiti
artists, and this had a lot of influence over the new, third version of
WiiSpray. In the end it’s the spray can itself that gives the artist the
possibilities, but the style and the techniques I got from the artists
allow me to take a look at the process itself. Sometimes it’s like a
puzzle and you have to find methods and work-arounds to get it right.”
you feel you have achieved a truly authentic spray art simulator, or
are there still more elements you would like to incorporate into the
course not I’m not satisfied yet, WiiSpray was in the beginning just an
idea and the result is a creative interface design experi- ment.
WiiSpray provides a framework of different possibilities without any
specifications on how to use it. Every user decides for themselves what
his or her creative expressions might be.
as a project, is still in progress and there are some things that I
have not yet shown to the public. I will publish more and more tools
like the stencil feature or an extension of the software that allows
collaborative work in real time.”
there elements of the WiiSpray system you feel are an improvement to
actual spray paint, or some things that WiiSpray can do that spray paint
course, there are some things that you can do with a spray can but not
with WiiSpray. Furthermore, it’s just a prototype system at the moment –
that’s why I am working on the third version. But it’s difficult to
answer whether there are elements which are improvements, because I’m
not sure if you can really compare both systems, the spray can and
WiiSpray. I would say that every medium has its possibilities,
advantages and disadvantages. These will influence the way artists will
use it for their ideas and in the same time it influences the resulting
You have shown your system to the people at Nintendo, could you describe their reaction?
“Yes, I had an invitation from Nintendo Europe and we spoke about a possible future for WiiSpray.
likes the idea a lot, but on the other hand, if I wanted to license
WiiSpray for the Nintendo Wii, I would have to develop
a much simpler controller that fits completely in with Nintendo Wii’s interaction Concept.ii.
reason that I decided to develop the third version as not being
restricted to Nintendo’s Wii – this looks to be a very good decision.”
What would you describe as the public’s reaction to WiiSpray? What would you describe as the reaction from artists?
different, for a lot of the artists it is highly interesting and for
some it’s the worst thing that ever happened to graffiti. But some of
these critical people change their minds after they understand that the
foundational basis of the project is not replacing real graffiti.
Moreover, WiiSpray should be seen as an interface to give graffiti a new
virtual dimension behind the boundaries of our tangible world.”
have announced WiiSpray V3, and the spray can is 60% more lightweight.
Is there more you could describe about the new version? Is the
improvement restricted to the hardware or have elements of the painting
software also been im- proved upon?
“Yes, I am working on “WiiSpray V3” and it will also get a new name.
next version will work without the Nintendo Wii hardware. This means
that there will be no legal or technical restrictions anymore and it
will be com- patible with most gaming consoles and PC’s.
after 6 months of testing under almost every condition and with a large
focus group, I know what I have to improve on in both hardware and
software. For sure one point will be the weight – even though the weight
of the current prototype is no more than the
of a regular spray can. If I have enough time I might improve the
simulation of a real spray can’s physical characteris- tics.”
would you say is the target audience for the WiiSpray system,
professional spray artists or younger fans of Nintendo or painting
enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds?
“This is a very good question – what do you think? I think graffiti has no restriction at all.
you are right to ask me. I would say it is better to distinguish
between professional artists and casual gaming applications and users.
That’s the reason that there will be a “Pro” and a “Light” version of
many spray artists work legally on commissioned murals, the spray art
has its origins in painting at illegal loca- tions. Many of those spray
artists see the element of risk as part of the art form; the riskier the
site, the more impressive the artwork (example: painting a subway train
or a bridge). Do you feel WiiSpray would not appeal to artists seeking
an el- ement of risk, or would WiiSpray give those artists a more
controlled way to practice their skills in a safer environment?
you are totally right – I think WiiSpray can’t give you the feeling
you’d get if you paint on a illegal or risky place – this is a advantage
of real graffiti. The advantage of WiiSpray – in combination or as
add-on for a computer game – is the possibly to reach a huge audience
throughout the whole world without any limitations in time and space –
and this could also be very interesting, even thrilling.”
professional spray artists are commissioned legally to paint public
mural. In times when those opportunities become more rare there may be
more of a tempta- tion for younger artists to practice in illegal
locations. Do you think something like WiiSpray in a public setting
might provide an outlet for those younger artists to express themselves
and actually reduce il- legal spray painting in a city?
was never meant to replace graffiti as an art form, its interface is
intended to bring graffiti to the virtual world. But, being publicly
available, it can help different people get in touch with each other –
you could use the collaborative real time aspects to get in touch with
people around the world. As a public installation it might inspire
people to try to make graffiti that they never would do otherwise, and
this can change their perceptions of graffiti,
from seeing it as destructive to viewing it as a creative and fun art form.”
Is there anything you feel cities, schools and non-profits could do to
provide people such as yourself with more opportunities to explore and
develop the applications of art and technology in addition to
encouraging the public’s exposure to it?
good question. I think it’s up to everyone to develop their own ideas
and aim to develop the first prototype of those ideas. Support should be
there, though, to provide artists with more opportunities and
possibilities, like labs, shops etc. and with profes- sionals to help
out and teach people to work with new tools.”
What are you currently working on?
“On WiiSpray V3, a hardware interface for Twitter and different other experimental interfaces.”
Where do you envision the WiiSpray system in the next 5 years?
depends on the market and the interest of people and investors.
Currently it is a difficult time for an innovation like WiiS- pray,
especially here in Germany. I also need to find investors who believe in
what I do.”