• Jed Ashforth

11 Great Pre-Prod Habits for an Efficient and Successful XR Project

The concept phase and Pre-Production phase of most XR projects can be costly and time-consuming. That can lead to you feeling the need to jump into Production before you're fully ready, and paying the price later. It doesn't have to be that way.

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@joannakosinska?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Joanna Kosinska</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/design-meeting?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>
Illustration by Realised Realities / Joanna Kosinska @Unsplash

As an XR consultant, I work with a wide variety of teams during the concepting and pre-production phases of all kinds of immersive projects. I see the same familiar challenge points cropping up time and again. Often, by tweaking their approach to the pre-prod phases and building a few good habits over time, clients realise there are straightforward ways to deal with some of these challenges and save their teams from wasted work and uncertainty. Here are some useful habits to consider adopting during the early phases of your XR project to get you into production as quickly and efficiently as possible.

1 | Keep abreast of the status quo

XR mediums might be new to you, but they may be very familiar to your users when you release. Don't develop in a vacuum. See what else is out there, see what’s possible at the bleeding edge and what’s become common practice. Don’t limit yourself to the competitors in your space, see what’s out there in the wider worlds of interactive XR and imagine what you could achieve.

VR games are excellent at nailing a good user experience and a good point of reference for the emotional feelings XR can evoke. Try some games and apps outside of your comfort zone and outside your business scope. See how other apps give different types of user experience and find things you like and don’t like. Understand the best practices and common approaches that have been adopted and ask if they're a good, easy fit for your project. Widen your baseline of experience. Experience what your customers might already be experiencing. See the quality of what's already out there.

Knowing what's already out there, and the quality of the user experiences on offer, can help you answer what your XR experience could be, and instead focus on what you want your experience to be, how it should function, and most importantly how it might feel to experience. This can save you a lot of exploratory R&D costs, and will give you confidence that what you want to build is not an impossible risk or one that will require expensive pioneering.

2 | Understand the constraints and costs before you set off on your creative journey

Think about the platform your customers will be using the experience on. Try and get a realistic understanding of what it can and can’t do. Understand your likely budget and timescale. Let these constraints shape your earliest ideas and approaches.

This is basic stuff of course, but in my experience with XR clients, a well-meaning creative vision can sometimes land a surprisingly long way from what the target device can support, and needs to be compromised and reworked repeatedly over the course of development just to make it fit. It’s much better to start with achievable ambitions and expand them out over time until you hit the limits, rather than starting with grand ambitions and scaling them back to try and fit. I've seen the latter derail more promising projects than you would believe.

3 | Start on the target device. Live fast, die alone, and don’t be afraid to leave corpses.

It’s time-consuming and challenging to communicate many of the experiential aspects of XR during concepting. Colluding on the creative process early on can often feel the right thing to do but can often be counterproductive and waste time if everyone jumps in too early. Creative conflict can easily arise from misaligned group-think as the ideation processes occur. While ever an idea exists in separate imaginations, it’s inevitable that no two versions of it will be alike.

It’s important to share the vision as early as possible. With 2D media we may use tools like concept art, mood boards and rip-o-matic videos to communicate the vision, but with XR these can be less successful in communicating immersive, spatial ideas. It’s often quicker and easier for one creative to just jump in and start creating the skeleton of an experience on the device. This will always get you closer to communicating the immersive experience than any amount of 2D concepting, plans, storyboards or diagrams.

Once everyone has seen their first draft in the headset and has experienced that vision, the collective conversation on how to proceed always becomes much easier. But be quick and don’t be precious; remember the aim is to provide a quick starting point for the wider creative conversation to agree the direction forward, and to communicate vision. Absolutely nothing should be set in stone at this point. If the idea seems strong with a very quick and basic implementation, that's a very good sign to push forward with it.

4 | The more you decide, the more you know. Aim to know it all as early as possible.

You should always work towards building the fullest possible understanding of the user journey that you’re going to make, both inside and outside the headset, before you launch into production. Your whole journey can be faster and more efficient if you have a detailed map and a vision to guide you to your destination, and if you have decided firmly what that destination is.

Creativity opens infinite possibilities, but you should be looking to make decisions from day one about what you want to make and how it should work. If you’re not narrowing down the possibility space, you’re not progressing towards production. Remember that XR is experiential; there’s no upper limit to quality of the XR experience you could deliver. Your job is to narrow that down to the XR experience you're going to deliver. The clearer your end goals, the more efficiently you can plan for them. Don't start a journey into the unknown.

5 | Check each other for 2D thinking!

It’s quite usual when working in VR for developers to think two dimensionally, because we often come from a traditional screen-based background. Our creative reference points are usually two-dimensional, it's endemic to our way of thinking. It’s easy to dismiss and ignore things we have to consider in VR, because in 2-dimensional mediums they’re not an issue. But then those things bite the project in the butt later when the realisation dawns that the mediums work very differently.

A common example of this is thinking in cinematic terms, like framing a shot or using a slow reveal with the camera. If it's an immersive GUI, we often find ourselves thinking in terms of a flat screen plane. It's natural for us to think this way after a life time of being steeped in cinematic and televisual storytelling, and it becomes an unconscious shorthand thanks to the visual nature of our imaginations. But just like in real life, we can't move the user and we can't move the world. We don't have a bounded screen space within which to arrange our GUI, so we can't just 'stick it in the corner of the screen'. We don't have a frame with which to give context and weight to the contents framed within, so any framing of a 'shot' is largely dependent on getting the user in the right place at the right time and facing in the right direction.

The familiar tools we rely on as part of our visual storytelling lexicon are ingrained into our visual thinking, so much so that it can be hard to escape the terminology when we're communicating ideas. If you're coming fresh into immersive development from a more traditional screen-based medium, there's a high likelihood that 2D thinking will be an early hurdle that trips you up badly. Which brings us to...

Photo by J Ashforth
Hi-Diddly-Dee, a Theme Park Designer's life for me! - Walt Disney's original layout model for DisneyLand, on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum, San Francisco | Image : Realised Realities

6 | You should be Imagineering

A neat habit to get into is to try and view every challenge like a theme park designer; taking responsibility for the user, thinking spatially, using architecture and layout to guide the user and the eye, and making sure the experience is comfortable and engaging at all times.

Never forget that, whether you’re augmenting the existing world or creating an entirely new one, you’re doing it purely for your audience's benefit. You're not just creating a point of destination, you're creating a journey. It's the user experience across the whole park that makes a good theme park experience magical. And that stems from trusting you're in good hands, and being taken care of responsibly. Everything has been thought of for you.

XR is no different - in some ways, there's even more to think about. With XR, part of the deal is that, to experience that escapism and immersion, you users perhaps have to blindfold themselves, they certainly have to voluntarily buy-in to the illusion, and they have to place their trust in you and your new world. So make sure your design is always clearly and proudly user-centric first and foremost, to build a good rapport as soon as possible. Welcome them in and treat them well. Keep them engaged and entertained. First impressions last. Make sure your user can quickly gain enough confidence in you and your experience to climb on board and let you rocket them into the unknown. Users should feel Disneyland-safe-and-spoiled in your hands.

7 | Look dumb, feel smart

For VR, a very useful habit for creators and designers is to make use of the Dumb Headset technique. That’s sitting or standing with the headset on, the controllers in your hands, but with the unit switched off. Then play through the experience you imagine in your head. This stops you thinking in 2 dimensional terms.

Do the interactions with the controllers, reach out and grab the objects as and where you imagine them. Look around to see the things where you imagine they will be, consider where GUI elements will appear and how you interact with them. Ask if you’re using the space thoughtfully, or are you imagining everything as front and centre with 2D thinking? Think how you imagine moving in the world. If it’s moving around a real space DO that, see what you bump into and how much space you need. How much body movement do you need with different interactions? Mentally try out how each interaction will work. Imagine how they should look and feel. Think through the user’s expectations about how this should work, based on real world interactions. Think about the possible outcomes, how the user might go wrong, and what they’ll do if, for example, they drop the object or lose it. How will the experience talk to them and lead them?

This will help you understand all the different interactions you need to build, and what affordances they need to include. Make notes as you go and revisit the dumb headset as often as you can while you add meat onto the bones of your design. The more completely you can imagine and understand the scope of the whole experience from top-to-bottom, the better prepared you are to plan what you need to build.

I always use this technique and recommend it to clients and associates, and while it can make you feel silly in the moment, once you get the hand of the technique it always manages to expose potential issues and opportunities early on. This is a great technique for flushing out hidden problems and unforeseen wrinkles in cases where we think ‘oh, that’ll be straightforward’, and they later turn out to require re-scoping features and functions, causing costs and delays.

8 | Explore and build confidence about the space the user uses.

Interacting with the world is where the experience and the user meet in the middle. It’s the true heart of the experience they’ll have. It’s a good habit to plan these out fully during pre-production, so you know everything you need will fit comfortably and naturally within the user’s reach. Redesigning the user's play space later (when you realise it's too cluttered, or there are depth conflicts, or some of the interactions are hard to reach) can be a costly and frustrating exercise; one of those moments where you kick yourself for not properly thinking through the worst case scenarios during pre-production.

For some designs it can help to mock up the virtual environment in the real world with cardboard boxes and objects around you, or items on your desk. Work out comfortable placement and interaction distances, make sure you can reach what you need to reach and operate what you need to operate. Make sure you will be able to read any information panels in the space without eyestrain. You can easily place someone else shorter or taller in the same physical space to check it works for them. Make you’re your play-space requirements fit your customer needs – will these be enterprise users sitting at a desk? Gallery attendees exploring a designated exhibit space? Home users with various play-space sizes and shapes, all wanting the experience to make best use of their available space?

Armed with this understanding, you can make the right decisions for how users should move around the world, how they should interact with the world, and where your user-facing information will need to be placed – where will your subtitles appear, and guarantee to be readable, for example. And where will your pause menu pop up without clipping through the rest of the illusion and ruining it? Once you understand the interaction constraints and play space considerations, you can decide on your approaches and determine the full scope of all your interaction needs for the piece. More pieces of the puzzle in place, more unknowns eliminated.

9 | Continually ask why everything benefits from being in the XR medium. We owe it to our users.

Always question what XR can and does add to your piece. What aspects couldn’t be experienced through an ‘easier’, more traditional medium? What aspects can make things better for the user? Engaging with AR, MR or VR can demand a lot from users.

We’re not at the point yet where any XR experience is hassle-free for the user, but the whole point of XR mediums is providing a user experience. So consider that we go in already owing our users a debt; It’s our job to make sure they get ample payback in terms of utility, usability and wow factor from that experience.

It’s a good habit to always be asking if there’s more you could be doing to make your world both (a) more natural and (b) more interesting for your user. This is a stone you should continually throw at your project as it develops. If something is more fiddly and awkward than they’re used to in real life, they’ll wonder why they’re bothering. Nobody wants to feel they've wasted their time, so as a minimum you should aim for your user to come out of the experience believing ‘that was absolutely worth the time and effort’. But always be aiming to transcend that; XR mediums are arguably more capable of surprising and delighting users than any other mediums, so the make the most of the possibilities they unlock.

10 | Meeting in the medium keeps the focus on the Experiential aspects

Try and support the whole team meeting and reviewing in VR together as early as possible. Even if the final experience won't support multiple users there are benefits to the team being able to share the experience, view the assets together, and see progress.

There’s no need to build out the network back-end and interface you might want for the final project before you can do this – be pragmatic! There are lots of tools and platforms that you can use for free in early prototyping and most of them will support multiple users at once.

For example, on a recent client project we would import the environment they were developing into AltspaceVR and the whole team could tour it together and use their existing movement and communication tools. This allowed us map out the whole space, figure out sight lines and pathing considerations, plan out the narrative journey and figure out the danger areas for view distances and visibility, getting agreement across the team before the artists and the coders got to work implementing it. This saved weeks or possibly months of back-and-forth between development team and creative stakeholders.

When designing rooms, spaces and interaction locations, some clients like to start by sketching rooms and objects out in something like Tiltbrush or Gravity Sketch, scaling and positioning to build a quick first mock-up of the space. The important thing is to start to get an idea of the actual experiential aspects as early as possible, while it’s still flexible and easy to change. Getting face to face and in the space of your creations will help your spatial positioning, layout, sight-lines, and scene composition.

Anyone on the team can doodle something in a Tiltbrush meeting, put it in the world, and start a discussion within minutes. You can quickly narrow down your visual concepting requirements; imagine how much easier it for your artists to start building the environments confident in the knowledge that answers to the critical spatial decisions have already been roughed out, and that the layout and positioning of objects and furniture have already been agreed with the rest of the team! It's an approach which allows for everyone to make much more focused progress towards an agreed final result. Meeting in the medium itself means focusing directly on the experience, instead of the team trying to imagine and then communicate a 3D immersive experience through 2D representations and verbal descriptions out in the real world.

11 | The user experience is everything in XR

Immersive mediums like VR, MR and AR are unique in being so laser-focused on the user experience they're delivering. There's a whole host of complex illusions working in concert to deliver an experience for your user that's quite unlike anything else out there. It's not enough to just deliver a competent magic trick; make sure you deliver on the promise of providing something unique they can't get anywhere else. We're selling experiences, not just functionality. And remember, each of those users are looking for the right experiences for them. An XR experience is always something that happens one-to-one between your user and your software. By it's nature it's unusually intimate and personal, and this should always be borne in mind as it's most important and distinctive aspect for developers working on them.

The key is to remember your audience isn't every XR user out there, it's one person using a device. Every user is different and unique, with different life experiences and different familiarity with the hardware.

A PlayStationVR gamer playing 'The London Heist'
Every user, every play space, is different. | Image: Realised Realities

If you can't make a decision that works for every user, then build ways for them to understand and make those decisions themselves. Make sure you include a solid suite of accessibility and comfort options, and that the user knows what they do and how to access them easily. If the user is having a problem, you need to help them before they eject out of the experience (and in some cases out of the headset) to escape it.

Invest extra time and effort in getting that user experience to be smooth and engaging at all times, and you can ensure that it won't get in the way of engaging with your content. If you're hoping to build a studio brand and through-line for your immersive projects, a consistently intuitive and excellent user experience is the best defining factor any studio could wish for. The market is full of high quality immersive experiences already; a lot of them lay forgotten and dismissed because, for whatever reason, the user experience just made it all not seem worth the bother. Your user experience should be the lubricant that provides the user a smooth journey into and through your content. It should never at any point be a barrier that foregrounds frustration ahead of engagement.

These are some of the tips and habits that my clients have found useful over my many years consulting on XR. Hopefully they can save you time, money and heartbreak with your own pre-production processes. If you have any tips of your own to add, it would be great to hear them!


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