The web is awash in claims that 2016 will be the year of virtual reality. And at first glance, that appears to be true. Multiple high-profile headsets debuted this year, ranging from the Oculus Rift to Samsung’s Gear VR to HTC’s Vive. But the VR community has a little secret: The technology’s blank pages are missing the entertaining, educational content that it will need to thrive. And content creation takes time, especially because the VR community is in the midst of developing the components, best practices, and user base that more mature technologies enjoy.
VR’s content creators have plenty of choices ahead of them. They must select a platform — the Vive, Rift, Gear, or Cardboard — and they must learn that hardware’s unique set of user controls and inputs. Then, there’s the choice of tools. Right now, most VR content is built atop game development platforms via tools like Unity. Although Google is in the midst of building native Cardboard development tools for both Android and iOS, today’s VR developers must rely largely on the VR gaming community’s limited infrastructure.
Despite these challenges, VR product development is entirely possible — not to mention exciting, lucrative, and important to the field’s success. Here’s how to engineer a VR experience that will turn customers’ heads:
One of the first and most essential choices along the VR journey involves choosing a target audience and platform. VR headsets vary substantially in their target users, stemming largely from the major differences between headsets’ prices, capabilities, inputs, and user controls.
Yeti, for example, recently built Tiny Eye, a VR seek-and- find game app akin to “I Spy.” We chose Google Cardboard for the project so kids and families could experience VR without breaking the bank. Knowing our audience and tool set — Google’s Unity SDK — from the start helped us build with confidence and make more informed choices about features and user controls.
Remember, building a VR product is — or should be — a multi-step journey, so don’t charge toward a production-ready application without doing your homework. First, challenge your riskiest assumptions with a small prototype to test with real users. Then, refine your concept and retest until you’ve found a VR experience that consumers can’t put down.
Unlike Netflix and many video games, VR isn’t something consumers can binge on without feeling sick to their stomachs. So don’t waste time building an hours-long VR experience. Instead, build in breaks that prevent frustration and discomfort. This is particularly important for Google Cardboard, which must be held close to the face. To circumvent nausea, we built Tiny Eye with three-level “packs.” Each level takes less than two minutes to complete, preventing an overwhelming experience. If a user completes all three levels, they're sent back to 2D mode, giving their senses a rest before they begin the next level pack.
No content is created in a vacuum, so look for inspiration from other VR products on the market. Explore lists of consumers’ favorite VR apps, and solicit ideas from peers. When you’re building content for a new technology, you have plenty of room to explore, but you should also lean on those who have traveled the road before.
VR may be an exciting new technology, but it should still follow a traditional product journey. Utilize feedback loops to ensure users will want to come back to the product after the first, second, and third times. Yelp, for instance, has a great user feedback system. The better food and service a restaurant offers, the better its customer reviews are. Meanwhile, customers’ restaurant reviews are reviewed by still others (using tags such as “cool,” “funny,” or “useful”), and some (known as “Yelp elites”) leave enough reviews to be invited to special events. This feedback system makes Yelp more useful to customers while also helping Yelp improve its product.
VR is changing rapidly, so even while you’re working on developing a product, stay up-to- date on the latest and greatest. While we’ve been working on VR products, Cardboard and the Unity SDK have already been updated several times. Keep an eye on the market for improved tools and updated software. These open up new features, squash bugs, and ensure your product is cutting-edge when it’s ready for market. VR developers might be interested to know, for instance, that NVIDIA just announced that its Pascal GPUs would support VR software.
A lot of the existing tools for product development aren’t directly applicable to today’s VR products, meaning design and development teams will need to collaborate more closely than ever. At Yeti, we learned this the hard way. We tried to have designers use tools like Framer to prototype VR experiences, but it was hard to translate to actual development. Ultimately, we learned to pair design and development, seating them next to each other for stronger collaboration and more rapid prototyping.
A crucial and exciting stage during the development of any technology product is user testing. At Yeti, we had nearly everyone who came into the office give Tiny Eye a spin — including one client’s 7-year- old son. Be warned that this can be a bit trickier with VR than another mobile or web application. Today’s VR headsets have very limited user bases, so beta testing might first necessitate some user training. That takes time, but it’s well worth the insights gleaned from users’ feedback and advice.
Particularly while VR is still new, developers should be experimenting to find what ingredients create immersive, enjoyable VR experiences. Don’t be afraid to prototype new features, interactions, and settings, and be sure to test them with users. Yeti recently had some fun experimenting with VR and live-streaming, reminding us that the field is ripe for creativity and innovation.
As your team gets the swing of VR development and your product matures, be a good citizen and share your expertise with others. Write blog posts about your experiences along the way, record a podcast, speak at conferences, and create YouTube tutorials. The more we all share what we’ve learned, the more VR can grow and thrive. Developing your first virtual reality product can be intimidating, but it’s not a fool’s errand. So don’t sit on the sidelines while other companies enjoy the thrill of building VR content. You’ve got the tools, creativity, and tips to get started. Join Yeti in building experiences that will truly brand 2016 as the year of virtual reality.
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