If you want to make a website today, you can build a prototype in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Thank the cottage industry of rapid prototyping tools like InVision, Squarespace, and WordPress that have democratized the design process. But if you want to create a virtual reality experience, it’s going to take a lot longer. “Virtual reality doesn’t have those tools yet,” says Paul Hoover.
Hoover is the head of user experience design at Artefact, where, for the last six months, he and his team have been developing a new product called Storyboard VR that allows designers to quickly prototype virtual reality concepts.
The tool’s main draw is its simplicity. “It doesn’t require any developer skills,” Hoover says. “The real pain point in the whole VR workflow is getting content positioned, spatialized, and sized correctly around you in multiple frames,” Hoover says. And plenty of designers can do those things in their imaginations, a much smaller number can actually code for immersive, spatial experiences.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” says Anders Oscarsson, lead VR designer at digital design studio Ustwo. Making a full-fledged VR experience requires solid coding chops. More often than not, product designers will hand off their work to developers who use VR editing tools like Unity and Unreal Engine to translate concepts into code.
Rapid prototyping doesn’t really exist for VR. “You can spend a lot of time building the wrong thing, and kind of realize that a bit late,” Oscarsson says. Storyboard VR is like WYSIWYG for virtual reality. Instead of coding a prototype in Unity or Unreal, designers can upload pre-made visual assets to Storyboard VR and drag and drop them into a scene. If you’re building an underwater world, for instance, you can upload a fish designed in Illustrator, then position and resize it using VR controllers. Creating a layout of buttons and menus takes a couple clicks. Once you’re finished, you can walk around your scene to see how it looks. Don’t like it? No problem. Storyboard VR is fast, so it’s easy to change things up.
But that speed comes with limitations. One of the biggest: You can’t use Storyboard VR to program interactions into a scene. “You can make a stunning environment, but with VR, it’s really all about what you can do in the environment that’s important,” says Oscarsson. And it doesn’t (yet) allow you to integrate your Storyboard VR creations into software like Unity and Unreal. Like its name suggests, the tool is best used for fast iterations, testing the sequence of frames, and exploring general concepts.
That’s where Storyboard VR is useful. The tool is essentially a virtual reality sketchbook. Designers can test initial concepts before investing in higher-level development. The end goal, Hoover says, is to speed up the iteration process, decrease the cost of creating in VR, and increase the amount of experimentation that’s possible. “If you can reduce the cost per iteration, you can move faster and be more efficient,” he says. “It brings about the advent of a more authentic experience for the medium.”