There are two core challenges for new designers with respect to starting work in virtual reality. First, you are working with breakthrough technology. The learning curve can be steeper, the resources are fewer, and a tolerance for iteration and ambiguity is required. You simply come with little to no experience with what you are designing for, and it has been awhile since most folks have felt that feeling. There is a very real chance that literally no one is doing what you are trying to do., and there is little to know chance even you have sen it before.
Secondly, the experience is completely immersive, and nothing, not a single detail, can be taken for granted or ignored. The audio must be perfect and must “move” in relation to an end user that now has full 360 degree access to a virtual world of your creating. For designers and developers, this is completely different than a typical 2D project.
If you remain fully grounded in those two ideas, you can excel as a designer in this medium and create experiences that are magical and life changing.
Human Oriented Design
As a first principle, I would encourage all designers to have as their objective an amazing experience, as opposed to what seems to be the goal of some, and that is to merely move a 2D application into 3D for the sole purpose of releasing a 3D virtual reality application. This is a new technology and it requires new thinking, new applications, and new and fundamental shifts in how designers solve problems for users and deliver amazing experiences.
Here is a great article that provides a solid and human oriented overview on designing for virtual reality. As the article encourages, it is imperative we “think like humans” and take the full breadth of the human experience into account before we simply start loading dazzling graphics into 3D digital space.
Learn about virtual reality in virtual reality
The second principle that is crucial to designers and aspiring developers it to iterate and experience as often as possible. Chances are, very few of us have a deep library of personal virtual reality experiences to draw upon when it comes time to create. Every designer and developer should take the opportunity to learn about virtual reality in virtual reality. There is a great resource for just that from our friends at Google in the Google cardboard design lab. The application will walk anyone through core concepts in virtual reality design in fully immersive virtual reality. From there, it is crucial to experience as many virtual reality applications as possible.
Here is a list of recommended experiences:
- Jaunt: Cinematic VR
- Oculus Story Studio
- Alien Isolation
- Doom 2 on the Rift!
- Samsung Milk VR
- EVE: Valkyrie
- Elite: Dangerous
- TheBlu: Encounter
- The Fifth Sleep
- Senza Peso
With that type of initial fluency in the medium, it is important to think of your concept as a unique product that has unique features and limitations provided by the virtual reality platform. Most of the time, in a way unique to virtual reality, there will be great overlap between these two and things will simultaneously be a limitation and a key feature. The two cardinal rules of a virtual reality application are :
- Always maintain head tracking
- Never drop frames
These are key because end users will always “break immersion” when this happens. And when users break immersion, two very bad things happen:
- You lose the magic of virtual reality and your application begins to disappoint
- People get sick
While those might seem like highly technical issues, they do bring into consideration many elements of UI/UX design and performance considerations that could pose limitations downstream.
On the flip side, these limitations are only there because simultaneously people are able to enter a high performance 3D graphics machine capable of producing 75 frames per second in 360 degrees and a full 3 dimensions. In other words, its your world, they are merely along for the ride.
Think in product terms
As you think in real terms of your application and the target platform as unique products, there is a great article from the product folks at Google Cardboard that can provide additional design insight from Google.
From there, you will need a lot of teamwork and help in the build process. For better or worse, virtual reality is a fairly labor intensive build and a tremendous amount of coordination is necessary. There are so many more decisions to make and contextual elements to consider compared to a typical project. This Unity video does a nice job speaking in real terms the inherent challenges in the Art Direction process for all game oriented development in 3D. It isn’t specific to virtual reality per se, but you’ll get the idea.
From 2D and desktop to 3D and mobile
The reality is most designers and developers will be coming from a 2D paradigm. At the same time, we are developing for users on the go, who desire to be untethered and to use applications in ways and places impossible to imagine in the development process. Designers and developers must think mobile first and and use that as a strength of their application. The folks at Samsung, makers of the groundbreaking GearVR have a great video walking through this below.
There is no mouse for virtual reality….yet
From there, the biggest challenges that still remain for not only designers, but the virtual reality technology community at large revolves around the user interface and control schemes. There is no mouse for virtual reality. There is no universally accepted standard for UI or the control scheme. There are some exciting advances with respect to input devices, but it remains to be seen what takes hold.
Virtual reality poses so much opportunity to change industries, lives, and entire ways of accomplishing things. The experience is richer and more addictive, and the outcomes are more intensely felt. For true believers, the challenges listed above will be fun and invigorating and they will strive to define solutions that advance the technology. With today’s virtual reality practitioners, that type of thinking is not only welcome, but expected. In a strange and cool way, we are changing the real world as we create a virtual one, and that takes a special group of designers and developers indeed.