Interviews with XR Designers: Michael Barngrover
October 27 2021
Name: Michael Kam Barngrover
Working At: Raptor Dance Studios
Prior XR Designer Role: Game Designer, Business Developer in law and consulting sectors
How was your transition from traditional to XR design?
My first degree out of high school was game design and there I learned C++. I actually taught myself programming on a Ti-82 calculator as a freshman in high school. Yet I didn’t go into the gaming industry.
After getting the gaming degree I went to university and got a bachelors in developmental psychology. I wanted to learn about learning and to bring that into developing smarter game agents. But I fell into the rabbit whole of psychology and other interests.
I didn’t program for almost 12 years.
After a path that took me to refugee camp work in Palestine and then ultimately moving to Istanbul for more non-profit work and an MBA, I stumbled back into simple programming when I got into operations studies and data science.
Using data to create simulations to improve the way businesses or non-profit organizations worked became the gateway for me to get back into programming and creating software experiences. I had never really satisfied my itch to create, and once I had forgotten how to program then I had felt like I had lost the ability to create.
Experimenting with SQL and R scripting made me realize how much I actually did remember about simple coding logic and encouraged me to start looking at the simulation and educational gaming sectors in Istanbul for opportunities to find work there.
I looked for educational gaming opportunities in Istanbul, but there were none at that time. There was only a single gaming incubator at a university, but it really wasn’t open to anyone from outside their gaming program.
However, in a lab next door to it was Turkey’s first (and at that time only) VR lab. I didn’t care at all about VR, but it was close to the city’s primary gaming community so I agreed to start working there. I began to study the Unity engine while still trying to create a non-VR software that could be used in education, like management simulators.
I was actually sitting a couple meters away from Vives and Rifts for about 3 months before I even tried one. I was just not interested in what VR could do because in my mind I was focused on its limitations with regard to exploring large open worlds.
I didn’t accept teleportation as a legitimate way to move. I occasionally was convinced to try a 360 video, but those never interested me.
Eventually, I saw enough people getting excited about their high scores in Longbow in Valve’s The Lab that I finally gave that a try. That was the app that convinced me that it didn’t matter whether or not I could run around a big open world. I felt present in that game space and was only focused on what I could and needed to do.
My perspective switched from what one couldn’t do in VR to what VR could do well. From then on, back in the beginning of 2017, I have been focused on creating experiences with VR and helping others to do so.
What was you first professional role in XR and how did you land it?
I have always worked as an independent developer and designer since turning to XR.
My local market, which is Turkey, has actually gotten smaller in recent years because of bad currency devaluation. A Quest 2 headset now is a bit more expensive than a Vive was in 2016.
So while there have been some design and development jobs with XR companies, the companies are small and they’re always owned by non-creatives, by which I mean they are companies owned by people who themselves cannot design or create XR.
I have observed how problematic it is to work as a designer and developer in such situations, when project decision making is uninformed. I find that working as a freelancer and then later as the founder of my own XR design and development studio at least protected me from having to do things that I am confident will result in an dissatisfying result.
I still have to work in such situations from time to time, but at least as an independent I have the choice at the beginning whether to agree to that kind of working situation or not. I’m also able to work on great projects that don’t pay at all, which I wouldn’t be able to do as easily if I worked for another company here.
How does your XR Design/Development work look right now?
As the founder of my own studio, I usually work as both developer and designer. I’m not a trained designer, but I’m an experienced VR designer because I build projects and I am always studying what others create.
"Whenever I experience a VR or AR project, my eyes are always looking at things like menus, scene transitions, the whole scene or level designs, interactions and narrative structure."
It’s actually pretty hard to appreciate a work, whether artistic or functional, that does not first impress me with its UX design and basic technical competence. When I work on larger projects that involve others, I work in a project management role rather than working under the instruction of one.
When I’m lucky to work with a trained designer or full-time developer, I don’t try to micromanage them. I talk with them to identify the objectives and deadlines and then let them take the lead determining the best methods toward delivering on them.
I can do that knowing that in an absolute worst case scenario, I have the ability to fill in for them.
I do most of my design before I start developing, obviously, which is done with the client. There is a lot of education involved in it since few clients really know what they want AR or VR is legitimately capable of delivering. The technologies involved are still half-magic in the eyes of many who spend money on them.
Even when working on a white-label project for another XR company, there is frequently a lack of UX design consideration when a project is being scripted. The most important contribution I make first starts with establishing a mutual level of understanding about what an AR or VR user experience entails and then co-designing with the client on top of that shared conceptual foundation.
Despite the extra work, I actually prefer co-designing with a client much more than being given complete freedom to design things as I want. The reason is that I don’t intrinsically care that much about most projects, in that my interest is focused on that collaborative experience. If I cared so much about something to design it myself, then I would already be doing it and without need to work for a client.
I care most about helping someone realize a project vision, so if the client doesn’t care enough to design with me then I’m somewhat at a loss about how best to proceed. I also lose respect for the client. The act of making is an endeavor that I believe demands respect and an ownership.
If I am making my own project, I own that. If I am paying someone else to make something for me, then I too must own that because the act is for me and in service of my objectives. I find it dissatisfying to work for clients that don’t respect work done on their behalf enough to contribute to it.
What was the hardest part and how did you overcome it?
The challenge that I think is the hardest to overcome as a developer and designer is simply balancing how much you experiment yourself with how much you consume the work and experiments of others. You can try a dozen interaction designs a month, but in that same time you may be able to find a half dozen variations of similar interaction designs that others have also attempted. There is no substitute for trying something yourself, but similarly there is a great value in checking how others have tried something.
The way I overcome this is by working with immersive art festivals, as event staff or as hosts of VR festival sites in Istanbul. When I host these things, it requires that I speak with knowledge and authority about the creative works in exhibition. That means I need to try them all, study them all critically, then discuss them with people of very different levels of familiarity with such VR experiences. It’s been an effective way for me to force myself to dedicate time to viewing more works and more experimentally creative works than I would otherwise when I am working on client projects.
What Are Your Favorite XR Tools and Suggestions
I use Unity and Visual Studio when I create XR projects.
Sometimes I just create my own custom editor tools when I know exactly what I want to do and it’s specific enough to my project that no one else would’ve made exactly that thing.
If you gave one piece of advice to up and coming XR designers, what would it be?
Don’t get too confident that you know how best to design something.
Hardware changes quickly and the comfort that audiences and users have with XR is also changing. In the old days, the number of users that could use a “smooth motion” locomotion in VR was so small you could just as well ignore it and focus on teleportation.
But not now; the number of experienced VR users has grown to where you must now include multiple locomotive options in VR projects. What we used to call “advanced” VR users are now just average VR users, while those that are truly advanced now can do things that most designers themselves cannot do. So it’s also important, in VR more than in AR, that designers push themselves to be among the most advanced and proficient users, without ever losing sight of the needs of novice or beginner users.
The only way for designers to become expert users is through constant exposure to new and novel XR experiences, even when they’re not being paid for it. Commit to XR mediums fully if you want to be good at designing for them and if you want to have a chance to identify potential methods before they become commonplace.
Where Can People Find You?
In addition to three current client projects this winter with my company Raptor Dance Studios, I’m producing the Immersive Funding Market for VRDays Europe, which I’ll be attending from 13 to 17 November.
I also am helping to lead Euromersive, the European federation of XR professionals and the ZeroEvents and XRCrowd communities on Whatsapp and Discord. You can find me on LinkedIn.
Interested in designing the future AR and VR applications?
Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR syllabus.
Want to know exactly what you’ll learn? Download the course syllabus.