Virtual reality development is having a big insurgence in the technology market, with big names like Google, HTC and Facebook driving the technology forwards. For a developer there are many tools to create the three-dimensional VR content, such as Unity and Unreal Engine, but what I wanted to find out was tools and techniques that could enable a lean planning and designing phase for an application used in a head-mounted display.
My first task was to find a simple and robust list of requirements for design prototyping tools, as the difference in VR tools and techniques can be vast. Pedro Szekely’s requirements for prototyping User Interfaces, that he introduced in his “User Interface Prototyping: Tools and Techniques”, offers a list of requirements that allowed me to evaluate some prototyping tools, without having to compare technological outputs too much (Szekely, P. 1994).
Ease of use: How easy is the prototyping tool to use and learn?
- Fast turn-around: How effectively can you make fast iterations on your design/prototype?
- Extensive control over prototype features: How flexible is the tool, and how large of a variety of features does the tool allow to put into a prototype?
- Data collection Capabilities: Can the tool collect data for further evaluation?
- Executable prototypes: Can the tool provide prototypes that are responsive and actually functional, and thus can be used for testing?
- Lifecycle support: Can the tool be used throughout the design process, or is it limited to a certain phase?
- Team design: Does the tool support in working in teams, or is it constrained to single user?
Version control: Does the tool allow you to track your changes and versions, and their feedback?
I tried some different types of prototyping tools and techniques, and chose three that represented different aspects of prototyping, to get a better perspective in designing for VR, and contacted a company that is developing an upcoming prototyping tool. I chose the tools with a prerequisite that they can be tested with a head-mounted display. To help make this blog slightly more concise, each requirement field was graded on a scale from 1 to 5 (5 = Fits requirement perfectly, 1 = does not fit requirement at all) with a short explanation.
360 Panorama Grid (Volodymyr Kurbatov)
The first tool is the most simple in this evaluation. The tool is a simple grid that helps designers sketch ideas in a 360-degree view. The sketches can then be imported to a 360-viewer to test the idea in the intended perspective. While many 360-viewing services already exist, I used www.kuula.co for the purpose of this tool. The tool makes it easy to plan and test ideas in the early stages of development, and requires a printer, copymachine/camera, paper, and some pens/pencils. For such a low-fi prototyping tool it was positively surprising, as it was easy and fast for testing ideas without costing a lot of time.
- Ease of use: 4/5 Easy to use and learn, though does require some drawing skills. Does require simple image editing skills to import in a 360-viewing program.
- Fast turn-around: 5/5 Very fast turn-around. Makes it easy for you to scrap a sketch if you did not like it, without having to worry about the time to remake.
- Extensive control over prototype features: 1/5 The tool does not offer an abundance of “features”. While it is great for communication, it is only as extensive of a tool as your drawing skills are.
- Data collection Capabilities: 1/5 The tool does not have any features for collecting data, be it user testing or anything else.
- Executable prototypes: 2/5 While this is dependent on other services, you can import the drawings into a head-mounted display. They’re not high quality, but they offer a good way to test new ideas.
- Lifecycle support: 2/5 The tool can be used later early and later on in the project, as it can be used in ideation and as a 3D communication tool. It does not cater for interactive/reactive prototypes well.
- Team design: 4/5 This tool does not constrain you to working on a single file or device, and is only limited by the amount of paper and pens you have.
- Version control: 1/5 It does not have any features to help tracking of versions or changes
InstaVRis publicly open already as a browser webapp that allows you to import 360 pictures and videos, and add hotspots and actions to the 360 environment. InstaVR has a packaging feature for importing the content to different devices, such as android, iOS and GearVR. While the tool seems to be more directed at 360-degree photographers, it could definitely be used for testing out VR ideas and interactions, either with 360-footage or with the earlier mentioned 360 sketch tool. InstaVR has a free version which has limited options and a 199$/month pro version with improved features.
- Ease of use: 2/5 The tool’s UI was slightly complicated and even with the beginning tutorial might cause some information overflow for less adept users.
- Fast turn-around: 2/5 The free version has capped bandwidth and packaging speed, so getting an actual testable prototype takes a while to get to another device. The making of a prototype also takes a while.
- Extensive control over prototype features: 2/5 While having pretty good editing capabilities, the features the tool has are limited in the free version. The paid version does offer some more features, like creating the prototype content for web, but the 199$/month price is quite compared to other tools.
- Data collection Capabilities: 1/5 I could not find any data collection capabilities in this tool. It may be possible for you to install separate data collection tools in the testing device, but that is out of scope for this tool.
- Executable prototypes: 4/5 Even the free version of the tool allow importing the prototype to platforms like Android, Gear VR and iOS, which enables testing prototypes in a broad range of devices.
- Lifecycle support: 3/5 The tool can produce content that is good for testing or even publishing, but it is limited in early phases of the design as you need to have some 360-degree material and possibly other graphics, so you can import them into the application.
- Team design: 1/5 This tool does not offer any in-app team working.
- Version control: 3/5 It does not have any features to help tracking of versions, but the application does have a cloud storage, so a smart user could possibly be able to do some version control.
Visual Editors (Adobe Photoshop)
Photoshop and Sketch, amongst others, are real staple software for and Visual, UX, or any design development. They are commonly known as visual creation tools, but there are techniques that can allow them to be used for prototyping ideas for VR. Generally, these tools require 360 footage, or an existing layout that can be used to import the UI / Other design elements in the 360 environment. This technique requires a 360-viewer software or head-mounted display to test prototypes. I used Photoshop for my testing purposes.
- Ease of use: 2/5 While personally I am quite adept with Photoshop, I realize that it has a fairly steep learning curve for beginners, that is even steeper when a new user tries to do Panorama image editing. Compared to normal image editing, making 360 content has added complication.
- Fast turn-around: 4/5 A proficient user operating an image editor can have a very fast turn-around, which is even hastened by existing libraries of tools and content that are easily accessible. For a new user this could be slightly slower.
- Extensive control over prototype features: 3/5 While offering a great variety of tools and tricks to make prototypes, the prototypes produced by this type of software are only viewable 360-degree images
- Data collection Capabilities: 1/5 As with the two other tools, there is a lack of data collection capabilities.
- Executable prototypes: 3/5 As this tool can produce quite good quality images, the prototype quality can reach publication level, but they lack the interactivity of a real VR environment.
- Lifecycle support: 4/5 Can be used at any phase of a product development’s lifecycle from making early drafts to being used to make final visual elements for the actual product.
- Team design: 3/5 As Photoshop and other image editing software are widely used in the field, it’s not uncommon to find many colleagues in a team that can also use it. While you cannot work on the same file simultaneously, a parallel working of elements is possible.
- Version control: 4/5 Photoshop is a professional tool, so it has a good version and layer control, which allows you to control and mark changes really well.
Upcoming – ProntoVR
As the field of Virtual Reality is still in its baby steps, I decided to also look into upcoming VR prototyping tools to see what kind of perspectives they can offer for a UX Design perspective in the development of VR applications.
To find out more on the current situation and the future of the VR scene, I spoke with Eran Helft and Dror Spindel, the co-founders of ProntoVR, and upcoming VR prototyping application. Eran and Dror mentioned how they would like to bring a change to a “coding first” approach, which often lacks any testing or prototyping. The “coding first” approach can arguable make the process of designing the VR application prolonged and more expensive, as prototyping can allow reducing the problem areas in the initial stages before going into more time consuming development phases.
Some of the main pitfalls with VR development that Eran and Dror mentioned are the fact that there’s still no common practices in the field. Furthermore, as the field is in such an infant stage, the amount of help one can find from the bustling online communities can be limited as some of the challenges might be ones that no one has faced before. Eran and Dror mentioned that one of the main reasons for going towards a web-based application is to enable a seamless transition to VR and to allow more collaborative working methods.
I talked to Eran and Dror about testing the beta version, which could allow me to evaluate how well ProntoVR could meet the criteria. Until then I will use the current handful of tools that I have found.
The current state of prototyping tools is still not relatively abundant, as I was able to find barely a handful of tools that are purposely meant the design of VR prototypes. Of course, this does not mean that designers have not been able to find ways of applying current digital and paper tools, such as low-fi paper prototypes or visual editing software, for the design of VR. It just requires designers to equip their toolboxes in more novel and experimental ways until more purpose built tools come out and some design or development standards have formed. There seems to be an understanding, that the current approach of VR development could benefit from more prototyping to find out an optimized design, which sparks a hope for designers interested in the field of VR.
Out of the mentioned tools, I could not rate which is the best as they all are fit for different types of tasks and projects, as is the case for almost any design tool and technique. For example, the Panorama Grid tool is excellent for figuring material placements in a 360-space, while a visual editing software could be used to see how a more detailed UI design could work in an already photographed space/environment. My suggestion is to prototype as much as you can, so go out and give vr prototyping tools a try!
Instavr link: http://www.instavr.co/
Kurbatov V. (2017) Draw sketches for virtual reality like pro. link: https://virtualrealitypop.com/vr-sketches-56599f99b357#.q2h3rb7io
Szekely P. (1995) User interface prototyping: Tools and techniques. In: Taylor R.N., Coutaz J. (eds) Software Engineering and Human-Computer Interaction. SE-HCI 1994. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 896. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg