First alarm goes off, followed by second alarm… then a third.
I’m up. I can’t claim to be a morning person and my alarm app will attest to that. I do have getting ready and out the door down to a fine art though. I yell “Alexa, flash briefing” while making a coffee so I can listen to the headlines from around the world. It’s a Saturday and this is usually my weekday ritual, however today I’ve decided to take part in a Virtual Reality (VR) Hackathon so every minute counts.
I jump in my car loaded with a hefty PC and Oculus Rift (not the most portable setup). I usually put on a podcast for my commute, and I’ve recently discovered ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Fish’.
I pull in to the venue and proceed to lug my stuff upstairs and reconvene with my group. We kicked off the hackathon Friday evening, selecting our groups so that we had a good mix of people in each team. There was a good spread of people here today; developers, designers, artists and entrepreneurs eager to better understand the potential of VR.
VR has become one of my passions, as a designer, it’s a really exciting challenge. Bad design never hurt anyone, but poor VR design can and will cause sickness or injury. This means you have a responsibility as a VR designer to understand the technology and human physiology well enough to know how it can affect people.
In our team huddle we brainstorm some ideas, discuss a couple that we conceived the night before and see if the concept holds up in the light of day. One of our group members is keen to do an educational experience, specifically build a chemistry experience that will help teach the periodic table of elements. Learning these kinds of things in class can be quite abstract, so we had an opportunity to help build a stronger association between the elements and their symbol.
We’re all pretty happy with this idea and feel that VR can add some real value here, so it’s time to figure out the plan of attack. After quickly scoping out the project, we devise a MVP and then create a wish list if we have time leftover to build it out a bit more. My team member Nathan (our developer) begins working out some of the mechanics and creating a basic blueprint in Unity for us to build our experience from. Seiya (fellow VR designer) begins researching some elements we can focus on and I begin to map out the UX.
Storyboarding scenarios for VR is a little different from storyboarding a typical piece of screen content. You have to resist the urge to draw in rectangles and stop thinking about camera angles/a frame. Instead, you place the user in the centre, and map out the scene around them. In VR, you can’t control where they’ll look, so if you’re only designing for what’s in front of them, you’ll end up creating a linear experience that underwhelms.
We have another quick huddle to see where everyone is at and make sure everyone feels comfortable with the direction and scope. It all looks good so it’s time to get on the tools and see what we can cobble together in a weekend. There is a lot of guess work involved in developing a VR experience. It’s too early to just say “this won’t work” – it’s always worth throwing together a quick demo and giving it a try. Our developer begins getting to work on building out the core mechanics of the experience while Seiya and I begin to build test scenes of the key interactions to see how they feel.
I could go through the previous hours of work but it can simply be summed up as follows: test, iterate, troubleshoot, troubleshoot, troubleshoot + coffee. We designed a basic scene where you’d need to build a molecule to solve a problem. For example, create an H2O molecule to put out a fire. This allows for a practical application of the periodic table as well as providing a bit of a science playground. The beta was very basic; a 3D scene sourced from the internet and some quick elements painted in tilt brush.
We take a break for dinner when the pizza arrives. I’m pretty sure hackathons and meet ups wouldn’t exist without pizza.
By now we’ve got a lot of the core mechanics of the experience working so we can begin to add some features. It’s odd but I’ve found one of the most satisfying things for people in VR seems to be simply picking up an object then throwing it, so we’ve worked this action into the experience so that you can flick an element at the compound you’re creating and it will snap in place. It’s satisfying!
Deciding we’re in a good place, I head home to veg out and get some sleep.
Arrive home and say “Alexa, turn on the lights” … “lights aren’t responding at the moment”. No one said turning on a light was supposed to be simple, did they?
Chris Hogben – GPJ Creative Technologist