Designing for Virtual and Augmented Reality>> Tools and Software

Designing for Virtual and Augmented Reality>> Tools and Software
If you are planning to design virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), you will need the right tools and software. Whether you choose traditional design tools or ready-made templates when designing for virtual and augmented reality, you’ll need to keep the user in mind. Keep reading to learn more about VR and AR design tools.
Traditional design tools for virtual and augmented reality
There are currently a number of popular 3D computer graphics programs on the market. None of these tools were built specifically with content development for virtual reality or augmented reality in mind, but nearly all of them transition seamlessly into the task. These graphics programs were built to create 3D graphics out of the box, so using them to create 3D graphics for VR or AR experiences is a natural step.
3ds Max, Cinema 4D, Maya, and Modo are examples of full-featured and diverse 3D graphics applications that you can use to create 3D graphics and models. You can then export these models to a format that your development environment can understand as part of your 3D workflow. Depending on your needs, this could mean importing individual models of your environments, importing entire scenes created in these 3D packages, or even viewing and importing 360-degree images to be brought into your development environment as a single texture.
360 degree images are often used for virtual reality experiences. When discussing 360-degree images, you may hear terms such as an isometric projection or a cube map. These terms refer to different ways of how to view a 360-degree image. A cube map image is an image of six square faces of an image that represents a view from one of six perspectives: up, down, left, right, forward, or backward. An isometric image is a single image that contains the full 360-degree image, causing more distortion as you get closer to the image poles (top and bottom). More projection types are always selected.
Google recently announced “equilateral” images, which seek to solve some of the shortcomings of isometric or cubic images.
When viewing an isometric image or a 2D cube image, you may notice that it looks a bit strange. Rectangular equal images appear stretched at the top and bottom, while cubic images appear divided into six square images. In virtual reality environments, these images are “projected” onto 3D models (isometric images on a sphere, cube maps on a cube) as they appear as normal 360-degree environments to the user within that environment.
This image shows the differences between an equal image on the left and a cubed map image on the right. While they may look odd as 2D images, when viewed on the inner sphere or cube, respectively, these images appear ‘correct’ to the user being viewed within the sphere or cube.
Each of these apps has a different set of strengths to consider as you evaluate your options for creating graphics for a VR/AR app. For example, modeling in 3ds Max is incredibly powerful, while animation in Maya and Cinema is very powerful and fast. Evaluate how you use each package, and find the platform that fits your asset creation direction.
If you are interested in diving into the world of virtual reality 3D modeling, please know that the water can be very deep! Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to learn 3D modeling, even if you’re a power user in other software. Transitioning from a 2D screen realm to a 3D realm can be challenging even for the most experienced 2D graphic artists. In 2D work, you need to visualize only the side facing the user. In 3D for VR/AR you have to focus on all aspects of the object, because any aspect may end up presenting to the user. Keep working! 3D is ubiquitous in today’s world. There is a huge demand for these skill sets, and the demand will only increase as VR and AR grow as well.
There can be drawbacks to some high-powered 3D modeling software. 3D modeling software is processor-intensive – many programs require a fairly powerful computer to run. It can be expensive to purchase several of these programs and stay up-to-date. Most of them have trial periods (usually 30 days) during which you can download and try it out to see if it’s right for you. However, more often than not, 30 days is not even enough to scratch the surface of what these programs can do.
If you are just starting to learn 3D modeling, almost any 3D program can teach you the basics. Most of these programs share similar traits or terminology, so learning the basics from one program can transfer skills to other programs. Some programs carry “student”, “lite” or “standalone” versions, which are either full or slightly reduced versions of their software that can be purchased or subscribed for at a much lower price than the full versions.
If none of these options are available to you, there are also free versions of 3D software available. In-browser solutions like Sketchup Free can be used to create models and export them to VR or AR. Blender is a more full-featured solution for users looking to ditch the frameworks of a professional modeling package without the cost associated with a high-end 3D modeling package. Blender is a free and open source 3D modeling suite. It’s cross-platform and designed to work well even on older, less powerful computers.
The Blender community is large and diverse, and there are many tutorials available for learning Blender – from the Blender website itself, to YouTube, to Blender For Dummies (Wiley). For those who are just getting started with 3D modeling, Blender is a great way to test the waters and begin your journey.
After you have established a foundation of 3D modeling skills, you can decide if you want to move to one of the other modeling tools. If you plan to work in the industry in a studio or agency, research the set of tools that those studios typically use. Blender is a great tool for learning 3D modeling, but many studios prefer to work with one of the high-powered tools like Maya or 3ds Max and often have workflows tailored to a particular toolkit.
VR/AR-Based Design Tools
The 3D software mentioned above was mainly created before the recent advent of VR/AR. With the rise of VR and AR, these tools are starting to adapt to these new workflows. 3ds Max Interactive, for example, is a VR engine that extends 3ds Max to help non-developers quickly create room-scale mobile, PC, and room-scale virtual reality experiences.
However, there has also been a rise in new tools designed specifically for design in virtual reality. Tools like Google Blocks and Oculus Medium are prime examples of tools specifically designed for creating and sharing 3D models within a VR environment.
These programs differ greatly from traditional 3D modeling applications, in that they focus specifically on virtual reality models. These applications require specific devices (HTC Vive or Oculus Rift for Google Blocks and Oculus Rift for Oculus Medium), and use motion controllers for these devices to sculpt and create 3D models in a virtual world. You can then export the models for use in a traditional 3D modeling engine or directly to a virtual or augmented reality development environment.
Blocks currently look a little less featureless than the average tier; However, the simplicity of the blocks makes it easy for new users to pick up quickly. You may find yourself using a tool like Blocks to quickly model 3D objects for modification in other 3D applications. You will likely experience a much steeper learning curve before you feel comfortable working at the intermediate level; However, you will be able to transport your forms over long distances within Medium without the need for other tools.
The image below shows the tools and panels available to the user within the Google Blocks VR interface. The 3D well model shown is by Don Carson and available on Google Poly, Google’s store for 3D artifacts built into its tools like Blocks or Tilt Brush.
These apps offer a whole new way to think about and create 3D models. Like many things in the world of virtual and augmented reality, it is still early days for these applications, and best practices and ideas are still emerging. Working in VR for 3D modeling can quickly become the de facto standard for creating 3D assets, especially 3D assets that will be used in VR or AR settings. Before virtual reality, designers and artists had to come to terms with creating 3D assets in the 2D world of a computer screen. With the advent of VR and AR, being able to see your 3D assets fully realized in a 3D setting while you work on them has become a game-changer.
Ready-made models for virtual and augmented reality design
Premade models are used in all industries, from game development to architectural designs to feature films. Even with a full 3D staff on hand, you can often save time by using a model from one of these resources as a starting point. Like the real world, VR environments often need to be full of “things”; Otherwise, they can feel gloomy and empty. Many studios use models from sites like this to assemble background elements into their environments with their graphics team focusing on building the models, which may be the main focus of their app.
In these cases, sites like CGTrader or TurboSquid can be very useful. These sites offer high-quality 3D models that range from simple one-off models to highly detailed environments and everything in between. If you need a template, there is likely to be a template available on one of these sites that covers your need, or it can at least get you started.
Almost anyone of any skill level can sell models on these sites, which makes it a very large market. It also leads to a large variance in the quality and price of assets. So, buyer beware: make sure you understand exactly what you are going to get before downloading. Even if you’re not interested in 3D modeling yourself, you need to know what to look for when downloading assets for your app. You need to understand things like the number of polygons, 3D file types, and composition to ensure that the assets you download will work with your app.