Last year the VR industry took a huge step forward when the Oculus Quest was released, finally an affordable, portable VR headset which ‘just works’. VR has never been more appealing. Unfortunately the tools available for designing VR applications, including training simulations, are decades behind similar tools for building web/mobile applications. Web/mobile designers have tools like Figma, which let them collaborate in real time and integrate with the entire web/mobile development workflow.
When we started building VR training sims, no comparable design tools existed for VR, so we created one, called Sketchbox. We released a free beta version, and after well over 100,000 installs we’ve learned a lot. This article will discuss what Sketchbox can do, how we see teams collaborating in VR and the future of VR design.
What is the Sketchbox Design tool?
We initially built Sketchbox for prototyping VR applications like training simulations and it was specifically designed for multiple team members to work together. In the freely available version of Sketchbox, you can have multi-user VR meetings, import 2D and 3D assets, use a variety of creation tools, resize yourself or the environment, act out interactions, create presentations and export your projects to Unity.
Prototyping VR & AR Applications
Many teams, including our own, use Sketchbox to prototype VR training simulations, which require multiple stakeholders to collaborate. Creating a VR training sim requires a subject matter expert (SME) who understands the existing training curriculum, and someone who can translate the curriculum into technical requirements, like a product manager (PM). The SME helps the PM ensure the VR training is realistic.
For example: you have a 3D scan of an environment, like an airplane, and the PM needs to know exactly how a hatch door should open. The 3D scan can be brought into a VR meeting and the SME simply explains exactly how the hatch door opens, as if they were standing inside the plane. Understanding exactly how the virtual interaction should feel before any code is written saves a ton of development time, which makes VR collaboration sessions especially useful for VR training sims.
Teams often record their VR prototyping sessions as video. The videos help get buy in across organizations where decision makers often don’t have access to a VR headset, or want to put one on.
Companies building applications for the Hololens and other AR platforms often use Sketchbox for prototyping because they can use virtual environments which are tough to work with. For example: for even the most determined designer, bringing an oil platform into the office would be impossible, but after the same rig exists in VR, an AR application can be easily prototyped.
Team brainstorming sessions
We’ve seen many teams, especially remote VR teams, which are increasingly common, use VR meetings for design and brainstorming sessions. Being in a VR meeting is like having an infinite whiteboard to explore ideas with where you can manipulate 3D objects and data.
Some agencies use VR meetings specifically for ideation. They give everyone on their design team a set amount of time to come up with ideas for something like an “AR wayfinding app for Walmart”. When the time is up, each member of the team explains their approach in a virtual show- and-tell.
Complex 3D Data
It’s possible to bring a variety of data into Sketchbox including FBX, GLTF, 360* images, even Navisworks and Revit files. We see many users, especially researchers, bring complex 3D data, like point clouds, into VR. Experiencing the data set in VR helps the researchers understand it, and makes their analysis easier. Common examples include geological data, point cloud scans from drones and even large architectural models, though there are tools like InsiteVR which are much better suited to working with architectural data in VR.
What’s next for VR Design?
Today, developing VR applications, like training simulations, is significantly more difficult than a comparable web/mobile application because the tools available for VR design are comparatively rudimentary. Eventually VR design tools will catch up to their web/mobile counterparts. A single non-technical designer will be able to design an entire VR training sim without writing code, just like web/mobile designers today.