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Immersive Interview with Jonathan Ravasz

Volodymyr Kurbatov
Jul 16, 2018 · 10 min read

Johnathan is a VR prototyper and designer in Oculus.

You are working now on Oculus in London. What is your experience?

It’s great! I’ve been here since last May. It has already been fifteen months. I have been working on social VR related project mostly. I’ve worked on Oculus Rooms and Oculus Venues. We just had two big releases out of the door.

What kind of tools are you using?

I come from a traditional design background, my core tools have always been hand-sketching and drawing. When I moved into the UI design discipline, I picked up Photoshop, Illustrator and eventually moved to Sketch and Framer.

At the beginning of my career, I was working on a couple of AR projects for a digital agency. Unfortunately, the UI design was not always executed accurately by the engineering teams. It was a really frustrating experience for me, which motivated me greatly to pick up Unity and start implementing my designs correctly. I’ve stuck with Unity ever since.

The foundation of my current tech stack is still Unity, for 3D modeling and motion design I use Cinema 4D, for 2D work I use Illustrator, Photoshop. I am trying to bring my sketches to VR straight from the sketchbook as soon as possible.

Is your position a prototyper?

I consider myself a designer, however, on paper, I am a prototyper.

Does it mean that you are partly coder and partly designer?

Yes. Practically this is a relatively new position for the entire industry. It is a new position within Oculus/Facebook as well. I believe I was one of the first official prototypers to join Oculus. I don’t really fit into any traditional roles. The output of my work is design, however, the means of getting there is often an engineering dominant process.

In this industry, it’s difficult to be a pure designer, and just draw squares or make environments without an ability to make interactions.

Absolutely. Especially for VR/AR. You want to transform your idea from the concept phase to something tangible as soon as possible, it’s so easy to make mistakes without doing so.

For websites, it’s differentiated: UI designers, UX designers, frontend and backend developers. For VR it’s not so easy to define positions. I noticed that different teams have different structures. Who is on your team? Do you have some clear separation?

I am part of the London based Oculus team. Our team consists of an exciting mix of various skills and backgrounds, such as architecture, interaction design, fine arts, engineering. Our approaches are different, but the problem space remains the same for all of us.

How do you deliver your ideas to developers?

Delivering ideas to the engineering teams is a great challenge for such a complex technology. We haven’t figured out a silver bullet, yet. Communication and delivering high fidelity prototypes is key. Video snippets of interactions can be an effective way of delivering ideas as well. I do a lot of diagramming and writing as well. A final delivery should contain a mixture of all, described concepts, diagrams, videos and of course demos.

But as usual, your code isn’t going to production. Isn’t it?

I do production code, however, it is not something I focus on. The engineering team has been extremely keen on helping me to improve on my programming skills further.

It’s interesting that you are the person between designers and developers. I noticed that before you had a lot of side projects, own libraries demos, and research articles. Do you want to share some details?

One of the most polished open-source projects I’ve done was Punchkeyboard. Punchkeyboard is a Unity-based VR keyboard, enhanced by autocomplete functionality. I believe even Rec Room is using fragments of it! A student from UCLA has recently contacted me, they are using it for archeological VR project. It is exciting to give something back to the online community. I have done a bunch of smaller side projects in the past and Medium has been an important hub for sharing my ideas. Although I feel like most of that stuff is a little outdated now.

But at those time it was very insightful. Before our interview, I went through your Medium account and found the article about UX in 360 VR that made a lot of influence on me at that time.

“Design Practices in Virtual Reality” was bi-product of my bachelor’s project. It was my introduction to VR as a designer and my first swing at making sense of the problem space. At the time I was working as a UI designer, mostly on native 2D apps, and I was frustrated by the fact that I am essentially just reusing the components that were invented at Xerox Parc in the 70's.

I’ve started to focus on VR, not necessarily because of how much the technology excited me, but because I saw an opportunity to develop a unique design language for this brand new medium.

How about your previous experience?

When I finished high-school, I was determined to become an illustrator or a typographer. However, during the second year of my studies, we have had this brilliant Ph.D. student who was teaching us a class called “graphical programs”. I clearly remember this funny exchange we have had with him on his first class:

- Do you guys know how to use Photoshop?

- Yeah!

- Illustrator?

- Yeah!

- InDesign?

- Yeah!

- OK, then. I have nothing to teach you.

On the next class, he has decided to bring in an Arduino and his RepRap 3D printer. My mind was blown away. This was the first time I was exposed to emerging, accessible technologies as a designer. From that point on I became obsessed with the idea of integrating hardware or software engineering into all of my side and school projects. I felt like it enabled me to create freely, without being influenced by characteristics or limitations of the tools I was using.

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RepRap 3D printer

At that time I’ve also landed a job as a junior UI designer. At school, I was focusing on programming and conceptual thinking, whilst at work, I moved from designing books or posters to designing iOS applications. The first day I’ve joined my job it turned out that we have three months to ship a fully fledged IoT app for a large German client for a huge trade show in Germany. I needed to learn fast and deliver results. Those couple of months were a high-pressure design boot camp, but they’ve set me on a route on interaction and UI design.

I took a little time off work when I’ve won a scholarship to study for a semester in Germany. I’ve attended the classes of Ralph Ammer (make sure to check out his Medium articles on drawing) at the Academy of Applied Sciences in Munich. He ran a brilliant course on tacit knowledge. It was the first time that I was properly exposed to interaction design and computer-human interaction. During my stay in Munich, I was working on my own haptic devices based on vibrotactile stimulation. My work wasn’t really innovative, it was based on the research of Margaret Minsky from the 90’s, however, it has taught me a lot on the current state of input devices and their limitations.

How about your project Unfolding?

Unfolding originally started as a semestral school project around 2013. Our department was commissioned to design an information system for one of the oldest streets of Bratislava, Slovakia. Most of the buildings of this street belong to the Catholic Church and are protected by the government, therefore they are free of any ads or visual smog. It is a small oasis within the city center. The fact that a physical information system would have disturbed the cleanness of this street, motivated us to explore different means of displaying information. This was my first contact with AR. With my friend, colleague and classmate, Filip Ruisl, we have developed a small concept prototype using Unity and Vuforia, where the buildings were overlaid by virtual information. The user could peel back to historical layers of the facades. Around 2015–2016 we have decided to revive the Unfolding project when we have won a European Union grant to develop an MVP of the concept at the Budapest based innovation laboratory Kitchen Budapest (KIBU). We have developed a fully working prototype by reconstruing an entire historical building in Budapest in 1:1 scale using the lens of a smartphone.

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Kitchen Budapest

After finishing Unfolding I was offered a position as a designer and mentor at Kitchen Budapest. KIBU offered us all the tools and technologies at our disposal 24/7 which has allowed me to pursue my ideas for VR. It has been a very productive environment and I was relatively free to do what I wanted.

It sounds like a dream.

Absolutely! I’ve had non-stop access to an amazing workshop and had the chance to play around with technologies that I would not have had the budget for myself.

I saw your project about data visualization. What is it?

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Visualisation of the DEREX Index has been more of an artistic project. But the core concept is very close to VR. I was working with a dataset on the tendencies for right-wing extremism in Europe. I tried to find more emotional and descriptive ways to represent this data. I’ve created a physical sculpture. It is a topographic, political map of Europe where the level of extremism by country is defined by height and scale distortion. So the deeper and larger the country goes, the more it leans towards extremists ideologies. The topography of the map allows viewers to see the data in 3D space, shedding light on trends and tendencies in a geographic context.

What do you think about data visualization in virtual reality?

I believe that there is huge value in presenting data in VR and AR. The different perspectives over datasets can reveal a lot.

I’m also so excited where it can lead us. Right now I’m working a lot with 2d data presenting, and VR/AR will give us third dimension. Right now it’s on the initial stage, and I’m looking forward to seeing development in this direction.

100%. However, it can be a dangerous tool as well. It makes it easier to represent data in deceiving, subjective ways.

I researched this direction and wrote an article about it. In VR experience I added 3d models of people in real scale and separated them into two groups to show how many people are having less than $10 in a day. When you see and can compare visually groups of people it affects and involves you much more.

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How your side projects affected you and your career?

They have influenced me the most. They’ve allowed me to learn skills outside of my comfort zone. Currently, at Oculus I rely on those skills a lot. But at the same time, I don’t believe that side projects are sustainable in the long run. I believe if you want to have a great impact in your work you need undivided focus. If someone has the opportunity to make their side project their main focus, that’s the ideal case.

This balancing between side projects and a full-time job is impressive. Now tricky question: If you could, what career advice would you offer to younger yourself?

It is not a sprint, but a marathon. Managing a healthy work-life balance is essential for staying productive. This is something I am learning now the hard way.

What are the most required skills for guys who want to start designing for AR/VR? For example, you are hybrid and have skills from two words. But what to do for guys that know only interface design?

If you come from a traditional 2D design background, 3D skills are necessary. Essential 3D skills are more important than programming. When I decided to start exploring the VR problem space, I was leading a daily C4D challenge for about four months. Adding spatial thinking to your design process is absolutely necessary.

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Expand your thinking in various fields as well, such as psychology, architecture, interior design, computer-human interaction. One of my favorite references for ergonomics nowadays is Human Dimension & Interior Space by Julius Panero. There is so much to learn from architecture for designing AR/VR! Architectural Intelligence by Molly Wright Steenson is a great book summarizing the great influence of architects on our current digital landscape.

Funny as I also studied and worked for some time as an architect. Also, I just had a chat with Ana Garcia Puyol, she is director of user experience and integration at IrisVR, and we also discussed how architecture and interior design skills help to design in virtual reality.

And the last question about your hardware. I assume that you are using Oculus :)

I use the Rift and Go for development. Before joining Oculus, I was prototyping on a Vive. Recently, I’ve been hacking around with the Intel RealSense Cameras and Leap Motion sensors a bit.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

This story is part of series Immersive Interviews. If you are also VR/AR designer, and you have what to say (I’m sure that you have) drop me a line on email or Twitter. Check out the previous interview from this series:

Inborn Experience (UX in AR/VR)

Learn about user experience in augmented and virtual…

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