From Product Design to Virtual Reality

Personal experience and intro to VR.

Jean-Marc Denis
Oct 26, 2015 · 12 min read

Backstory

I am a product designer at Google, and I joined the company through Sparrow, a French startup that got acquired on July 20, 2012. Since then, I worked with the Gmail team to build from scratch a flagship product that became Inbox by Gmail. It shipped on October 22, 2014.

Another dimension

My first weeks in the team were as scary as it can get. People used words I had no idea of and asked me questions I didn’t know how to answer.

Everything is going to be alright

I told myself and firmly believed that the dots would connect eventually. I am a passionate person, and I knew that I didn’t mind spending hours learning and experimenting.

  • Any design skills as diverse as they are will be a huge benefit.
  • Photography knowledge will help you because you will interact with concepts such as field of view, depth of field, caustics, exposure and so on. Being able to use light to your advantage has been much valuable to me already.
  • The more you know 3D and tools, the less you will have to learn. It’s pretty obvious but be aware that at some point, you might do architecture, character, props modeling, rigging, UV mapping, texturing, dynamics, particles and so on.
  • Motion design is important. As designers, we know how to work with devices with physical boundaries. VR has none, so it’s a different way of thinking. “How does this element appear and disappear?” will be a redundant question.
  • Python, C#, C++ or any previous coding skills will help you ramp up faster. Prototyping has a big place because of the fundamental need of iterating. This area is so new that you might be one of the first to design a unique kind of interaction. Any recent game engine such as Unity or Unreal engine largely integrates code. There is a large active community in game and VR development with a huge amount of training and resources already.
  • Be prepared to be scared and get ready to embrace the unknown. It’s a new world that evolves every day. Even the biggest industry-leading companies are still trying to figure things out. That’s how it is.

Roles

Design teams will evolve because this new medium opens a lot of possibilities for creation. Think about the video game or the film industry for instance.

First step and fundamentals of VR design

First step

In this second part of the article, I will try to cover the basics you need to know regarding this medium. It’s meant to be designer oriented and simplified as much as possible.

Let’s get (a little bit) technical

The new dimension and immersiveness is a game changer. There is a set of intrinsic rules you need to know to be able to respect physiologically and treat your users carefully. We regrouped some of these principles in an app so you can learn through this great immersive experience.

  • Maintain head tracking.
  • Light to show a path and help the player.
A simplified illustration of XY head movement safe zones.

Degrees of freedom

The body has six different ways of moving in space. It can rotate and translate in XYZ.

Oculus and Vive lighthouses position tracking

Inputs

Depending on the system you are designing for, the input method will vary and affect your decisions. For example Google Cardboard has a single button, that’s why the interaction model is a simple gaze and tap. HTC Vive uses two, six degrees of freedom controllers and Oculus will ship with an Xbox One controller but will eventually use a 6DOF dual controller “Oculus Touch”. All of them allow you to use more advanced and immersive interaction patterns.

The good old Xbox One
Oculus Touch
Leap Motion on top of a DK2

Tools

This is a big piece and might require a more in-depth article. I will focus on the most popular tools used in this industry.

Cinema 4D motion explorations

Closing notes

Virtual reality is a very young medium. As pioneers, we still have a lot to learn and discover. That’s why I am very excited about it and why I joined this team. We have the opportunity to explore and we should, as much as we can. Understand, identify, build and iterate. Over and over.
And over again…

Google Design

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