Getting started in VR

This is a set of resources for people who are interested in designing and developing for VR, but aren’t sure where to start. I’ll be focusing on more accessible technology (specifically, Unity and Google Cardboard) to make this guide useful to as many people as possible. Hopefully this will be a good jumping off point for you and you’ll feel more comfortable working in VR. Let’s begin!

What’s even possible in VR?

I think it helps to look at some examples first, to get a sense of what you can and can’t do.

Giant is a short VR movie inspired by real events in the Yugoslav Wars: you’re not an active participant in the story, but you can look around the room and watch the story unfold. The focus is on immersive story-telling and building empathy, not gameplay.

Tilt Brush is a 3D painting tool. You can create 3D, digital artwork with controllers, and view it from all angles. The possibilities are endless!

The Portal: Aperture Robot Repair Vive VR Demo is a 5 minute game experience where you have to, you guessed it, repair a robot. You interact with the world and you can walk around the robot while you fix it. It’s fun, it’s very polished, and it’s also an example of how VR could be educational: imagine learning about anatomy or engineering this way. Though hopefully less catastrophically.

Finally, Job Simulator is a game where you have to perform mundane tasks in comically bad ways. It’s more focused on gameplay than the other 3 examples, and is completely goofy.

What do I need to get started?

One big question I had when I started in VR was simply, “how do? ? ?” What technology do you need, what does it look like to test it, what does a workflow look like.

Here’s a checklist of things you need at the beginning:

  1. A smartphone
  2. A Google Cardboard viewer (~$10–20)
  3. A normal laptop or PC
  4. A free Unity account
  5. Android Studio (if you have an Android) or Xcode (if you have an iPhone). Both are free.

Of course, you can shell out for a real headset instead of a Cardboard viewer for your phone, but I wanted to keep costs as low as possible.

All together, if you already have a modern smartphone and a modern computer, you only need to spend a few extra bucks for the viewer. All the software is free. ~Woo~

What does a workflow look like?

It depends what device you’re developing for, and what software you use, but let’s say you’re making a Cardboard iOS app with Unity, like I am.

You’ll build your experience in Unity, on your computer. Unity is a game engine that lets you make 3D and 2D games. Here’s what it looks like:

You don’t need to know how to code to get started, though it will help. We’ll talk about Unity more in a bit.

Once you’re ready to test something on your iPhone, you’ll “Build” this project and “Run” it from Xcode. The transition between Unity and Xcode doesn’t always feel seamless, but this guide will help you work through it.

After that, the game will automatically be running on your iPhone. To get the VR experience, just pop it into your Cardboard viewer and look around. You’re in VR!

If you have any experience with coding or using software like Illustrator or Maya, some of this may feel familiar. If not, that’s okay. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.

How do I learn to use Unity?

Lucky for you, there’s lots of tutorials!

I recommend going through some of the official tutorials, to get a sense of how Unity works. I know some people who like the Treehouse tutorials too, if you want something more structured.

To start learning more about how VR works in Unity, download Google’s Unity SDK to get a sample project to play around with.

There’s so much you can do in Unity that it can feel a little daunting. I recommend thinking of a simple game idea and then googling every question you have. Break each problem down into bite-sized chunks and piece it together from there.

Like I said before, you don’t need to know how to code, but some familiarity with scripting or writing in C, Java, C#, etc will help. Until then, there’s nothing wrong with copy-and-pasting solutions you find online. Don’t let coding deter you from VR.

How do I learn all the buzzwords and best practices?

VR is full of weird terms (reticle) and weird considerations (don’t accidentally trick the brain into thinking it’s been poisoned).

Unity’s VR tutorial helped me learn a lot of those terms and considerations. You can read more about best practices in Oculus’s documentation, in this article by Timoni West, or in this one by Adrienne Hunter. I recommend taking notes on everything you learn: there’s a lot!

One major thing to consider is how VR affects the brain. Movement feels really disconcerting when your body isn’t actually moving at all: this is why most games are stationary, or have limited movement. It’s also so immersive that you have a greater responsibility for the experience you create. You’re literally changing someone’s reality. Don’t do it lightly.

Do I need to know about 3D modeling?

Nope.

Of course, if you have a very specific vision and want to make everything yourself, then yes, you will have to learn about it. But to get started or to make really simple games, it’s unnecessary. You can even get or buy assets from the Unity asset store if 3D modeling doesn’t interest you at all.

If you’d like to learn more about it, you can get a free educational license for Maya and follow this tutorial. Treehouse has a great Maya LT course as well.

There’s other 3D software you can use too; Maya is just the one I’m most familiar with. You may want to try out Cinema 4D or Blender instead.

I have more questions!

I bet! If you want to learn more about Maya, Unity, and designing for VR, I’ve been keeping notes on all these topics and making them public. There are more resources and actual guidance in there; I hope it helps.

I also recommend simply diving in. It can seem scary and overwhelming, so follow a tutorial. Follow twenty tutorials. You can and will get the hang of it.

There are meetups in major cities, accounts to follow on Twitter, and lots of resources cropping up online. No one has all the answers yet, but that’s what’s exciting about VR. We’re all learning together.

go have as much fun with tech as this woman

Morgane is on twitter and here is her website.