Becoming a Virtual Reality Designer
Lessons from a VR intern at Facebook
In the summer of 2016, I got the opportunity to be an intern at Facebook as a product designer. A few weeks prior to my internship, I found out that I’d be working on the virtual reality team. Given that I had no prior experience in VR, I felt extremely intimidated and unprepared. Within just a few weeks, I had become a more confident designer with a new passion for VR.
In retrospect, I realize how lucky I was to be placed on this team. There are five things I’ve learned about designing for VR which can help anyone make the move to the 3D space.
Lesson #1 : Create your own curriculum
As an intern, I had to work on several projects within 12 weeks all while learning how to design for VR. Thanks to the work environment at Facebook—which encourages time spent learning and tinkering as well as collaborating with a supportive group of peers — I was able to keep up.
Still, learning a new design domain like VR comes with a lot of pressure. Learning a new skill that leads to a product that could be used by many people causes even more pressure. You’re learning, but you’re also designing and executing simultaneously. It certainly could be the reason why full-time designers find it hard to experiment with VR. This realization made me appreciate the year of school I had left in which I could teach myself all the skills needed without the pressure of shipping products.
Lesson #2 : Put it on your face
A phrase we often say on the Facebook VR team is “put it on your face.” This emphasizes the fact that you shouldn’t design for VR without building a prototype that can be tried on a headset itself. Similar to how an app might look beautiful when designing it in Photoshop or Sketch but feels very different when you view it on your phone, watching a video of a VR experience is very different than how it actually feels once you see it in the headset.
My prototyping workflow started with sketching on paper, using a 2D program like Sketch to build assets, and then doing quick animations in After Effects or Framer. Once I felt confident with a direction, I created prototypes in Unity that could be viewed on the headset for which the product was being designed.
I used an Oculus Rift as I prototyped because it allowed me to view my Unity scene in the headset. However, the Rift is still a high-end device that comes with other higher costs, such as a powerful PC with a good graphics card. If you don’t have access to a Rift and a high-end PC, you can export your Unity scene into a smartphone and use Cardboard or Gear VR.
Lesson #3: Choose your platform
The input differences in the headsets can cause confusion, so it’s important to choose a single platform to design for and then expand from there. Although most VR headsets have a button, there are some that don’t, like Homido. Some work with console controllers out of the box like Oculus Rift; others require some custom configuration such as Gear VR.
Before investing a lot of time and money in a specific platform, I’d recommend experimenting with Google Cardboard to help you get the feel of what it’s like to develop for VR. Although Cardboard has obvious limitations to what you can do, it’s the most accessible device out there. It costs less than $20 and works with most Android and iOS smartphones.
I prefer designing for the most widely available devices, not just those who can afford the best experience. It’s true that some of the best experiences exist on platforms like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. But we need to keep in mind that in order for VR to grow, we need to design for the VR devices that more people can afford in more parts of the world.
A concern I’ve often heard with Google Cardboard is that “not many people use it even if they own one.” Perhaps that’s true, but as a designer, this sparks my curiosity: why aren’t people using it? And what can we do to make them use it more?
Since returning to my studies back in Vancouver, I have been experimenting with small prototypes created in Unity for Google Cardboard. This has helped me understand the many constraints that come along with it, all while prototyping with my regular designer tools: a MacBook Air and an iPhone.
Lesson #4: Learn the terminology
Part of the problem with adapting to VR design is that terminology is still being defined. Field of view and reticle are two common loaned words from video games that we use in VR today. Other words like pitch, yaw and roll are borrowed from engineering disciplines. As time progresses, most designers have settled on the meaning of these words in the context of VR. For me, having conversations with designers and engineers who are familiar with VR proved to be the most useful when learning the terminology. My background in film and game design also proved to be useful as I was able to adapt terms I already knew to this new field.
Lesson #5: Lean into your strengths
A product designer new to VR should already know that ideating does not require fancy tools, that iteration is key to good design and that it’s important to test your prototypes with users early in the process. Many folks working in VR today don’t have a background in product design, but other disciplines like software and game development instead. Understanding your strengths as a designer will bring great value as there is a lot that product designers can offer teams developing for VR.
Before I began working on a VR experience, I made sure to start with the product design basics: Who am I designing for? What is the problem I’m trying to solve? Where and what context will this be used in? Why are we building this? This helped me manage the initial chaos of designing for VR. I also helped keep my team aligned by documenting my process in a journey framework.
As pioneers within this industry, the possibilities are endless. What makes me excited for the future of VR is that it gives us designers a whole new canvas in which to innovate. You can contribute to this space as much as as any other designer. Don’t let the fear of this new medium hold you back from contributing to a future that is rapidly coming towards us!
I’m excited to be returning to Facebook next year to continue my VR adventure. In the meantime, I’ll be preparing myself as best as I can for the industry. You can learn more about Facebook Design internships here. If you’d like to talk about VR or internships, feel free to reach out!
Check out more stories and resources from the Facebook VR design team at facebook.design/vr.