What makes a VR expert?

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What makes a VR expert?

denny-unger-virtual-reality-headsets

An actual VR expert (via roadtovr.com)

The world is in need of VR experts and VR experts are quick to emerge. Having recently participated in a few hackathons as a participant / VR mentor and after visiting one “world leader in VR/AR software”,  I’m still pondering what exactly makes a proper VR expert? Is it a combination of a long history in traditional software development and the ownership of a VR headset? The mix of strong VR enthusiasm and a degree in psychology or IT? Could be. But these individuals would not know everything there is to know about VR. So who would? And why does it even matter? I’ve previously moaned about low-end VR systems possibly tainting the whole spectrum of VR experiences, but recently I’ve experienced a lot of horrible high-end VR as well. Trying out an immersive experience by some confident “VR experts” and feeling nauseated in just a couple of seconds, I was seriously shocked. Fortunately I know that the high-end tech in itself is already quite good, so it’s mostly the developers that inadvertently make people sick. Others might not be so lucky though, basing their whole view of the current state of top tier concumer VR based on some poor demo made with the help of “VR experts”. But that is actually a reasonable assumption, as these people are after all experts who surely know best. To identify who is who, I posit that an excellent all-around VR expert should possess some fundamental knowledge in the following topics (starting from some of the most critical in my humble opinion and years of experience):

VR design principles – Know thy best practises! Don’t take control from the player, don’t introduce the typical FPS control scheme, avoid small texts, jumpscares, the need to twist your neck too much, do add interactivity, nail the positional audio etc. The list of do’s and dont’s is long. Ideally, the expert should also be prepared to explain WHY this or that is not advisable (see software/psychology), as some of what works in VR might sound counter-intuitive at first. Take for example instant teleportation.

VR hardware – This can be as mundane as plugging in the rift (doing it wrong can result in a wide array of anomalies) or as intricate as preparing the room for Leap Motion (minimal sunlight, no reflective surfaces and so on). What’s the differece between the Rift, the Vive and the Gear VR? What about OSVR? Will my laptop run the Rift? Why not? Knowing how the hardware works and what are the current limits can already help you out in numerous situations. Get some hands-on time!

VR software – Knowing your way around some of the most common VR authoring tools (Unity, Unreal, CryEngine) is a huge bonus. Even when not a main programmer on a project, a proper VR expert can guide the developer to the VR specific lines of code or menu options that otherwise would take perhaps hours to figure out. It’s good to know that in Unity the VR support initiates from a specific sub-menu, while in Unreal the integration in native and requires no setup at all. It’s also probably the job of the person responsible for VR to always remind others the importance of optimization! Dynamic lights cost a boatload, ambient occlusion kills framerate and so on. A true expert will also be familiar with a wide array of different available VR demos, so some good or bad concepts can be demonstrated quickly through examples that really get the point across to the team or the general public.

VR news – Keeping up with the latest happening is important to know where the industry is heading, what is being done at the moment and what has already failed spectacularily in recent times. New demos and whole startups are cropping up daily, but it’s still manageable to stay informed about the main revalations. This also means keeping the eye out for the latest drivers and fixes. If you are being relied on to bring out the absolute best VR experiences to date, you have to be up to date (literally!).

VR terminology – There’s a lot of jargon surrounding VR that an expert should understand well enough to be able to explain in layman terms. What is virtual reality (in essence), the feeling of presence, IPD, head and positional tracking, motion-to-photon latency, difference between VR and AR, lightfields etc. Not only does it sound fancy, but it actually makes for a more efficient communication. Also, you can make more sense out of all the VR news bits. We’ve even got a small dictionary for ourselves to translate some key terms in estonian!

chickenknowitall

General psychology – As there is no VR psychology :) But if there was or ever will be, these are probably the topics it would contain: basics of the human perceptual systems, individual differences in reactions to VR, suspension of disbelief, consciousness, and a bit about fears and phobias. Many people feel terrified about VR at first – perhaps it is about a specific demo or about the fact that you are temporarily disconnected from reality. It’s the job of the expert to ease the person into the experience, switching the demo for something calmer or starting with short glimpses. It all depends on the situation and the person, so communication skills and confidence already go a long way.

VR history – This is a lesser requirement, but still nice to have. Being able to reflect on the early days of VR (I’m thinking about the 60s) really bring out the staggering progress made in this field in the last five or so years. Knowing the past also equips one with arguments to defend the future. Is VR safe? Last 20 years of academic research seems to show that. Commercial VR failed once, will it fail again? The hype in the 90s was highly unjustified, nowadays we’re talking about a whole different beast.

(VR) philosophy – That’s a though one. What is reality after all? Is it ethical to substitute the “real deal” with a mere simulation? Can we allow someone to choose the “fake” over the “real”? Why? Why not? For many this probably sounds like over-complicating something simple. For others, these topics are best avoided. For a true VR aficionado this should be something worth constantly thinking about with an open mind.

VR research – Not a must, but a bonus. Trawling the academic literature can give someone new insights that might not cross the barrier to mainstream VR news, unless the results are presented at SIGGRAPH. Most studies are small and oftentimes difficult to read, but can introduce a few new bits of knowledge or a general way to set up a VR system.

All in all, nobody knows everything about VR at this point. But somebody covering at least the first five topics (design, hardware, software, news, terminology) in reasonable extent could already be called a VR expert.

Madis Vasser
Madis Vasser
The principal investigator, tech guy and janitor in the lab. Founder.
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