For starters—I am no authority on design in any medium, much less VR. I’m just a girl sharing my learnings while I explore creation in a new medium. In my short time spent with VR I’ve discovered a few things that I’ll carry across with me from project to project. Hopefully they may be of some value to you as you get started.
Oh, and guess what. I’m not a programmer; I barely know C#. I say this to let other designers know that if I can manage to create VR projects using Unity3D with a barebones understanding of C#, you can too.
1. Use Real-World Measurements
One of my first experiences with VR was bending down to pet a robo-dog. Some other experiences include sitting in the cockpit of a spacecraft, rock climbing, and watching a giant machine search for his hand. Part of what made these experiences so engrossing and immersive was the fact that everything was created to real-world scale. The robo-dog was dog sized, the cockpit was nice and cozy with walls within arms’ reach, and the giant was as large as I’d expect a giant to be. Real-life measurements and scale help ground users in your virtual world. Think of your world as an abstraction of the real one.
2. Respect “the Cone”
What’s the cone (also known as the Cone of Focus)? It’s what the user can see immediately in front of them and in their periphery. Above you’ll see some panels: the primary action panel is what’s right in front of you, secondary is what’s to your sides while tertiary is what’s behind you. You want to keep important things within the primary action panel as much as possible.
I recently played a VR game that didn’t respect the cone and shut it off after a few minutes because it had given me a literal headache.
This mostly applies to important items, things that your user needs to see to progress or understand the story. This includes UI prompts and plot devices.
That doesn’t mean don’t fill your entire environment with content. If a user decides to explore your environment, there should be exciting things to see. Just make sure the important stuff is easily accessible.
3. Keep Movement and Transitions Subtle
There are some instances where you must move the user while they are in your VR world as there is currently only one headset that supports room-scale. But—if you’re going to move them, make sure movement is subtle, preferably constant, and user-initiated. Abrupt movement can disorient users, or worse, induce nausea.
Also consider this when implementing transitions. Keep those subtle too, and try to transition on elements that make sense in reality, i.e. blinks, characters going to sleep, or even being knocked out. This is hard, as there aren’t transitions in real life, and too many will break the reality of your experience. A fade to black is fine here and there, but be strategic of placement.
4. Optimize Your Scenes
VR relies heavily on CPU and GPU power. Bake textures, lighting, and shadows when you can to keep real-time calculations low. Dropping frames in VR isn’t acceptable as it can lead to users becoming nauseated.
Plan your art direction and setting to your advantage. I decided to go with a low-poly stylized art direction as it maintains visual intrigue with minimal stress on hardware. My VR experience also takes place at night, meaning there’s a lot I can leave to the imagination without forcing it.
Also, be conscious of platform limitations when working with mobile.
5. Usability Is Queen
Good design should lead the user through your world intuitively. You don’t want your experience to become UI prompt after UI prompt or one giant tutorial on how to use your game.
There are a few design elements you can employ to create intuitive interactions:
Color. Colors evoke meaning, even to non-designers. Think about the products in your daily life: the color red means stop, danger. Yellow, caution. Green, go, growth. The list goes on.
Light. The simple act of illuminating an object will bring attention to your user.
Sound. Use spatial sound. If you want your user to look in a specific direction, having sound emanate from that area will get their attention.
Cone of Focus. As mentioned before, keep important elements where your user is likely to look.
Sometimes, UI prompts are OK and unavoidable. If you are going to use them make sure they exist in 3-D space, not as 2-D flat objects, as that can be jarring to the user experience.
Also, mimic real-world usability. Door knobs are turned, switches are flipped. We already intuitively expect things to work a certain way; play off that instinct while creating your experience.
6. Create for Everyone
More of a PSA than a tip, to any possible hardware or software developers out there. Make sure what you create is inclusive to all genders and races. There’s nothing worse than attempting to put on a headset that won’t fit over my hair or attempting to select a character and finding that none of the options look like me. This makes me sad and is totally avoidable with minimal foresight.
Ready to Create in VR?
Surprise! Creating for VR is expensive. Not only do you need the headset, but, if you’re going high-end you’ll also need a gaming PC to run it. This all could easily end up costing you $1,000+.
But don’t let that be a deterrent. I highly recommend getting your feet wet with a Samsung Gear VR. It’s an Oculus product so you have access to the Oculus Store. It can’t play everything, but it does support a lot of games and is super developer-friendly. I actually consider it to be one of the best platforms to develop for because it’s incredibly accessible (my husband got one for free with his cellphone!).
One caveat: Setting up your Samsung phone for development can be a bit confusing. There’s info all over the web, but I found it to be in bits and pieces, here and there. I’ve collected all you need to get started below. You’ll need some Unity3D knowledge and I’d recommend watching some intro videos if this is your first time with the program:
4: Plug up your Android device, build and run your Unity3D project, and wait for the prompt to plug it into the GearVR.
P.S. I’m Here to Help
Like you (and most of the world), I’m relatively new to VR, but I’m happy to answer questions in the comments if you have one.
Illustrations by Monique Wray.