What You Should Know When Building Your First VR Application: Top Tips for the Aspiring VR Developer

Over the last couple of years, jobs for virtual reality (VR) – both for developers and engineers -- have quietly skyrocketed by 800%, as VR expands beyond gaming to capture interest from top F500 firms.  One VR expert, IBM's Michael Ludden, offers IDN readers some tips to get started in the white-hot VR area.

Tags: apps, developer, IBM, virtual reality,

Michael Ludden, IBM Watson Developer Labs
Michael Ludden
Program Director,
Watson Developer Labs

"VR isn’t just about gaming.  VR is blazing new trails in application development that will impact the social good."

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Over the last couple of years, jobs for virtual reality developers and engineers have quietly increased by 800%. This reflects growing interest in VR from a range of Fortune 500 companies such as Walmart, Volkswagen and Ford, notably for workforce VR training simulations.


This growing interest from such large enterprises is also another proof-point: VR isn’t just about gaming VR is blazing new trails in application development that will impact the social good. Consider applications for: meditation, assistance for those with learning disabilities, mental health, conquering phobias, productivity, and vocation job training.


This trend in VR adoption is just in the early innings, according to analysts.  By 2020, the VR industry is expected to generate $30 billion in revenue. To hit that number, VR developers and engineers will certainly be in high demand.


So, for professionals intrigued by this white-hot opportunity, here are some tips to get started:


You don’t have to code it if you don’t want to
As with any new technology, VR may seem daunting and difficult to dive into, but it’s not as has hard as it looks. Depending on what you’re looking to create, you can build an app with little to no coding involved with tools like InstaVR, headjack.io, and walkingapp. You can even make a simple app for Google Cardboard using Unity with no coding.


But if you really want to get into it and code your own, a little HTML and JavaScript knowledge can get your app up pretty quickly using A-Frame, WebGL, or Three.js.


If you’ve got some experience with backend development, you could learn C# to build on Unity or C++ for Unreal Engine 4. IBM has a free Watson Unity SDK that you can use that allows you to configure your Unity application to understand speech, talk with your users, and understand the intent of a user in natural language.


Choose the hardware and your audience before you start coding
When thinking about building your VR app, always keep your end-goal in mind. Make decisions early-on about who you want to reach and how. You also need to make a decision what hardware you’re going to use – this will determine what kind of app or content you’re able to create. Are you going to design for HTC Vive or Oculus or PlayStation VR? Each headset has different capabilities, inputs, and user control, so be specific in what you’re building. The also each have different financial entry points for the user, which should also get factored into your decision.


Decide if you’re going to develop an app for mobile or the PC powered Head Mounted Displays. Mobile apps are easier and faster to build, and provide the user with an untethered experience. PC app experiences can be more immersive, but are harder to develop and could require a dedicated space, and obviously you can’t take the experience with you.


It’s all about the users’ experience
So the first thing is, avoid making your users nauseous at all costs. VR/AR is a lot of fun, but I can also go south very quickly if you’re not considerate of how users move from place to place in your application. Try to avoid a lot of sudden movement and be mindful of how you’re getting your users attention.


While visuals will definitely make or break any VR experience, don’t forget about the sound either. Sound plays a huge part in supporting the believability of the experience and helps create an emotional connection for the user.


It’s important to remember, VR isn’t something that users can engage with for long periods of time. Length should be consideration in how you design your experience – make the experience fun and engaging, and definitely not vomit-inducing.


Get involved and engaged with the VR community
As developers, the best way to learn, is from each other. Start reading up on developer best practices and look into joining VR meetups and online forums.


Some of the most popular meetups on meetup.com are:  Silicon Valley Virtual Reality, Hardwired NYC, Virtual Reality NYC, Mobile Monday Silicon Valley, Augmenting Reality, Boston Virtual Reality, NY Video, Virtual Reality Los Angeles, Unload SF – VR & AR Meetup Group.


Here are some great forums as well:  VRTalk, VRHeads, VR Zone, Road to VR, Unreal Engine, Unity, Oculus, Steam, Oculus, Vive, and PlayStation VR.


Also listen to the “Voices of VR” podcast, it’s a great place to learn and stay informed on the latest news and happenings. You’ll hear from developers, enthusiasts, and technologists that are pushing the bar and setting the standard for VR.


Prototype and get in front of testers as quickly as possible and often
User testing is invaluable for your application, and the sooner you can get a prototype ready, the sooner you’ll know what’s working and what isn’t. You’re going to want to test the riskiest assumptions that you’ve made with real users first and then refine from there.


Consider low-fidelity prototyping as well, you’ll get your prototypes tested much quicker this way with less development time. You don’t want to spend a lot of time building something that users won’t like. Refine your application and test until you find the experience leaves users wanting more.


Stand out from the crowd
VR allows you to help your companies stand out – create an experience unlike ever seen before. You should feel free to think outside the box.


So, in short, VR is great for job training (especially where the vocation calls for dangerous situations because it can create a safe environment for learning).


VR has been used to help cure phobias and treat PTSD. VR can combine cognitive behavioral therapy with in-vivo exposure therapy to allow patients to work through their fears and recover from traumatic experiences in a controlled, realistic environment.  So, don’t be afraid to try new things.


Implement a feedback system
If feedback from users is important during the build phase, feedback from users after the launch is equally important. The more users leave a good review of your application, the more people will want to try it. And the more feedback you get about the experience, the better the improvement will be for your next iteration.


Michael Ludden is Director of Product at IBM’s Watson Developer Labs and AR/VR Labs. Previously, he was Developer Marketing Manager Lead at Google, Head of Developer Marketing at Samsung, a Developer Evangelist at HTC.  While Michael was generous to mention many leading VR technologies, IBM Watson also has services to help VR developers differentiate their apps, including : IBM Watson Personality Insights, IBM Watson Tone Analyzer, and IBM Watson Natural Language Understanding.