Advice on becoming a virtual reality designer from Facebook’s VR team

Image from Facebook’s VR app Facebook 360

For designers looking for a challenge, the bold new world of virtual reality beckons. It’s an emerging field where the rules haven’t been written yet and experts are few and far between.

The Figma design team is intrigued by this Wild West, so we swung by a VR talk at Tradecraft, a startup school with design, sales, and engineering tracks. A few members of Facebook’s virtual reality team gave tips on breaking into the field and talked about the nature of the work. We’ve pulled out the highlights from the conversation below.

Your experts:

GGabe Valdivia — Gabe’s been a designer at Facebook for over three years, with the last year spent on the virtual reality team. Before Facebook he was the all-hands designer for the connected car startup Automatic.

KKatya Kostyukova — Katya started her career in architecture before moving into product design. Her first virtual reality job was at the VR media company Emergent, and she joined Facebook’s VR team seven months ago.

What are three pieces of tactical advice you wish you could’ve given yourself before you got into Virtual Reality?

Gabe: Don’t wait for permission. Make a project up and play with it yourself. It’s not a big community, so if you do that today a year from now you’ll be in the top 1 percent of VR designers in the world.

Katya: If I can speak to my own story, when I got an offer to join Emergent VR I was crying because it was really intimidating. How do you prototype or do user research in VR? But then I talked to people in the industry and they told me, “Don’t worry, nobody knows!”

What were the specific challenges you faced moving from 2D design to 3D?

Gabe: In 2D, a couple rectangles and a squiggly line means ‘Oh my god it’s an app!’ But to really explore 3D in virtual reality, you have to sketch in relationship to the user. How do they react to your movement, do they follow your gaze, how far away are they?

Katya: Bring your design to VR as soon as possible — it’s really important because it will look extremely different. There’s VR templates, as simple as loading the pictures into a 360 sphere. What’s the focus in the foreground or the background? What’s in the peripheral vision, which is the curiosity zone? That can become the uncomfortable angle for your neck.

What are your favorite tools and what stage of development do you use one tool over another?

Gabe: When I joined the VR team I was like ‘I’m never going to touch Sketch again it will be awesome!’ But surprisingly, 50 percent of my time is still in Sketch. Virtual reality UI is still UI, you still have icons and text you have to lay out in some sort of surface. You default to whatever tool you know.

Katya: The next step is getting into Unity and playing around with visuals, literally putting a cylinder around you and applying the UI environment as a texture tells you a lot about it — is that the tone or feeling I want to invoke? [Editor’s note: Unity is a game development tool that’s become the de facto design application for virtual reality].

Gabe: Unity, again, is free and has the biggest online community, so when you Google how to do something you find it.

How many hours a week do you spend with a headset on?

Katya: I’m working on virtual reality and 360 audio so with all the testing, we try to do some of our team meetings in virtual reality to use our own products. Cumulatively I’m probably in a headset about an hour and a half a day.

Gabe: Agreed.

With big players trying to be pioneer virtual reality, who has the edge?

Gabe: We literally get paid to say Facebook. In all seriousness though, Google and PlayStation are two big players, Google from the ‘making it accessible to everyone’ perspective and PlayStation from a utilitarian one. Everyone that has a PlayStation can now access VR and a catalogue of gaming within the Sony umbrella.

Katya: Certain companies like Jaunt VR or even Lucasfilm — they are working on virtual reality or augmented reality. They’re making impressive experiences that are immersive entertainment. Facebook does have an edge in social VR because of all this data we have on social experiences.

Gabe: I wouldn’t underestimate Snapchat, they may not be doing VR but they’re making it ok to have a camera on your face. Not just ok, but cool.

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