Tips on How to Get Started with XR Design
July 30 2021
As for more creative skills in life (and it's no different for AR/VR design) you should follow the simple rule: create more than you consume.
There is so much to consume that it’s easy to get lost in analysis/paralysis. Sticking with the Doing > Consuming mindset will help you with learning anything, but it is especially useful when it comes to rapid evolving area of future technologies. As creators you have to be learning something new every day. You will need to read, watch or listen, but remember to reproduce and try the things on your own every step of the way.
Now, if we were going in steps, the first one would be exploring the area of XR (parent term for mixed, augmented, and virtual reality) and finding out exactly what you are getting into. If you opened this article, you most likely already know quite a bit about XR and you want to start shifting into an XR career. If you are feeling lost in all the options, I would recommend looking into the XR job openings. It is a great way to narrow down areas of your interest, identify which tools you need to master, and which skills you need to build up.
XR Design Tools and skills
Practical skills for any XR design job would include working with game engines, 3D modeling, and XR devices. After mastering those, you will need to practice and learn more about XR design specifics. We will cover those areas in the article.
3D Game Engines
There are two main game engines, Unity and Unreal Engine. They can be used to create almost any experience, along with the XR ones. Learning a game engine is powerful. First, it’s fun but it also gives you insight into the workings of designing any immersive experiences where interaction with the real world is replaced with a digital one. Learning a game engine is generally a good start because it lets you prototype almost any AR or VR experience you can think of.
To start, you can try out what fits you best. There are a lot of learning resources - tutorials, videos, courses, online classes, workshops… You can watch YouTube videos on your own or enroll in online education programs, the options are almost endless.
You will need some 3D models for prototyping. You can create them yourself or purchase them online (for example Unity Asset Store for Unity or UE Marketplace for Unreal Engine). A great program for creating 3D models is Blender, which I personally use. There are other really good options such as Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Mudbox, Houdini, and some others.
The choice really depends on your preferences, since all the programs serve the purpose. They are very similar in core and differ in some specifications. You can check them out and choose what fits you the best. If you don’t want to create your own models, you can get ready-to-use models, for example in Sketchfab.
Specific hardware will be necessary in most cases, especially for those who want to design for VR. For mobile augmented reality applications your smartphone should be enough. Those who are looking to buy a headset will be deciding between wireless devices and those headsets connected to the computer. Stand-alone headsets might have a tad worse resolution because of their lower CPU and GPU performance which is limited by their battery consumption. However they are portable, and a bit easier to set up.
The most common device of this kind are Oculus Quest 2 by Facebook and HTC Vive Focus 3 by HTC. I would personally recommend Oculus Quest 2 because of existing interesting content and easy development options.
Computer-connected devices are then more powerful, they excel in performing advanced tasks such as face tracking or even more advanced tracking such as eye tracking, heart rate and pupillomtery (dialation of your pupils) by HP Reverb G2 Omnicept. However these devices but they take up more space, are tough to travel with and cost more since they are used for more enterprise needs. If you have enough space and you’re looking into this category, don’t miss HTC Vive Pro 2 and Valve Index and before-mentioned HP Reverb G2. Quick warning - HTC Vive headsets are not natively supported by macOS. You would need to take extra steps to be able to use Vive with your Mac computer.
What about first generation (non-)VR headsets like Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream, you may ask?
The early stages of virtual reality headsets used a flat 360 images and videos. Those headsets fell off the marketplace due to better performing and affordable headsets like Oculus Quest or Pico VR. Google Cardboard is mostly seeing use as a branding tool on conferences however isn't really used for advanced AR/VR applications.
Practice your Design Skills
Augmenter Reality (AR)
My AR journey began at an unexpected point. I started learning Unity in my first product design job. As a digital product designer, I didn’t necessarily need it, but I was working on a couple of gaming projects, and the knowledge of game engines seemed very useful. Learning to work with Blender came handy as well. I mostly learned from watching online tutorials and trying to reproduce them. Few years ago, I got my first AR device, and realized I can use my new skills for AR prototyping. I created an AR game together with my friends — an AR version of a dancing carpet. It was fun, and we learned a lot. It’s a great example of implementing the Doing > Consuming rule. Creating personal passion projects is one of the best ways to learn new skills.
Another way to ease into it is to try creating a common type of XR product because there will be many examples, tutorials, and reference points. Circuit Stream has dozens of AR and VR on-demand workshops you can rewatch and recreate the projects presented. Talking about AR, currently, the most common use of AR are filters. For example, face filters are mostly created in Snapchat’s Lens Studio or Spark AR (a platform for creating AR experiences by Facebook).
Filters are so common and popular so it should be easy to find detailed tutorials for. It will only take a short time and you will learn the first principles of AR and get your hands on creation. Sometimes the small initial success is the kickstart that will motivate you to dive deep into it.
Virtual Reality (VR)
If you’re more into VR, the first thing I would advise you to do is to get familiar with the functionalities. It’s the fun part: play games, watch things, preview other projects… Get a good grasp of how VR works and notice things you appreciate or dislike as the user.
Same as with AR, there are countless resources for learning VR applications design. There are quite a few creative apps helpful for prototyping, such as Google's Tilt Brush or Sketchfab. You can find many cool video tutorials, open-source tutorials by VR companies, and workshops. Especially for 3D modeling and 3d environment (i.e landscapes), there are good tutorials out there. My favorites are from Blender Guru and Danny Bittman. For more complexity I would recommend looking into online courses and bootcamps.
Circuit Stream Offers a 10-week Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR course every 2 months.
Looking to get started with XR Design? Download our Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR course syllabus:
Once you have covered the base ground of XR itself and the technical aspects of XR design, you can work on the design side of things. XR design has some specifics. It is useful to remember digital design principles, and from there try which ones you can implement and how would fit XR design. To get you started, I have put together some practical tips.
General Tips for Starting XR Design By Yourself
These are the insights that I have discovered during my own processes. Digital visual design guidelines and principles relevant that are relevant in XR design are:
- Don’t put too much on the screen. Place the objects in space and let the users explore.
- Allow users to move their experiences. It will pay off in case something renders incorrectly.
- Choose the appropriate scale for user experience. You want the experience to be realistic, so choose meters as a base unit if you are creating a furniture screen, and centimeters if you are making an XR board game or want people to be able to try on glasses.
- Make sure users are safe. Don’t make people walk backward, remind the users to look around if it’s relevant.
- Provide good onboarding. XR is still a quite new technology and the experience will be the best if the users know how to use it.
- Think about accessibility. The same principles as for designing on-screen or games apply here. Pay attention to typography, color contrast... (If you want to go deeper into accessibility including people with disabilities check out AR for Anyone on-demand video workshop)
VR design is different from traditional screen or AR design. You can control way more than with the previously named. As a designer, you can create an entirely new world.
Tips and best practices for VR design:
- Allow users to move in the application without moving in physical space. You never know how big of a space the user has and you want the experience to be enjoyable.
- Don’t stick objects in users’ field of view - when creating GUI, always put it in the world
- Avoid flashes of colors. They can trigger motion sickness in more sensitive users.
- Color contrasts on Quests are a bit worse than for example on computers, so that’s something to be aware of.
- Accessibility is important - make sure sizes and contrasts are sufficient, add subtitles for people with hearing disabilities or for those who don’t have their audio on.
- Collect users feedback - when using different objects, fill in passwords, etc. Same as with onboarding to AR, users still might need more guidance. Make it smooth and easy to use. For best practices including how to perform proper user testing check out Designing UI for Hand Tracking on-demand workshop.
These tips will make it easier for you at the beginning of your XR design career. You can use them as a stepping stone, build a base and find your style. Get back to the first step where you found some XR design jobs you liked and try to create relevant designs. Maybe even personal projects to build a portfolio, and you are set to start applying.
One last piece of advice: always try looking into the future. Keep up with the trends and keep learning. XR is still a new area and it’s evolving fast. There will be trends, developments, new technologies, and it is crucial to stay on top of them.
"We have only just started and there's always more to learn about XR design such as user experience, user interfaces, and specific applications like real-time architecture or training simulators. The sky is the limit in uprising field, which means the sky is the limit for your XR journey. Don't think twice and take the chance, it will pay off. I wish you the best of luck with your XR design career!"
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