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Can anyone build VR?

Amazon claim on the Sumerian site that their software ‘lets you create and run virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 3D applications quickly and easily without requiring any specialized programming or 3D graphics expertise’. I am not a developer and although I’ve spent a lot of time working with developers I’ve never tried to build anything myself. In the interests of research I decided to build a VR app featuring an engine, using Sumerian. Here’s what I learnt.

1) It’s relatively easy to build something basic for VR.
If you watch the video tutorial and follow the instructions you can make a VR experience via the browser that works on phone /desktop and in my case Oculus Go. Basically you import a 3D model into one of the pre-supplied templates and publish. It gets a bit more complex if you want to add an environment in the background or activate the hand controller to move around but you can just follow the step by step instructions. I was able to build an app showing off my 3D Engine model for Oculus Go in about an hour including adding the hand-controller to navigate around. Clearly you need a 3D model, but you can buy lots of models now reasonably cheaply from sites such as TurboSquid. Alternatively, like me maybe you’re trying to build in VR because you already have a 3D model you want to experiment with.

2) Just because you can build, doesn’t mean you should.
This is my mantra in immersive design anyway, but this experience brought home for me the truth of it. Having built my VR engine I demoed it to my husband (the customer) and like many VR experiences there was a period of excitement followed by a trough of disillusionment. The initial excitement about being able to stand inside an engine and actually be inside a valve was quickly superseded by ‘it’s great but I don’t know what we’d use it for’. I had forgotten the golden rule – ‘don’t build unless there is a learning or business need’. I then followed the well-trodden path of many in the VR industry of trying to think of use cases for what I’d built. Eventually I came to my senses and realised that I needed to go back to the drawing board and consider AR instead.

3) Building for AR is a completely different kettle of fish.
Flush with my success at making a VR app I then tried the AR template. There then followed several hours of trying to understand how Github works, along with downloading Android Studio, then investigating how to become an Apple Developer and deciding to give up on that and focus on Android. Finally with all the relevant software in place I was ready to follow step 1 of the instructions and – total failure. Fundamentally building in Sumerian for VR is creating a webpage and building for AR is creating an app. They require a completely different level of technical knowledge, because unlike VR which runs (mostly) happily via a URL, browser-based AR still isn’t fully developed.

4) Professionals are paid a lot of money for a reason
I know lots of professionals in the VR/AR industry – developers and artists and they’ve honed their skills over years.  It was a shocking act of hubris to think that in a few hours I could build something even remotely credible. You can download a 3D model and build in Sumerian but unless you know about lighting, your model isn’t going to look great.  Without some experience of coding you’re going to struggle to bring much interactivity to your app.  Without an understanding of app development you’re not going to be able to produce in AR.  Without expertise in UX/UI design your experience isn’t going to function well.  Without learning design experience you’re going to struggle to produce something meaningful for education or training.  However, that isn’t to say that we should just give up.

5) Tools such as Sumerian have a great and increasing value
The industry needs these tools.  I might have struggled with the AR side but the fact that I could have a working VR prototype in the headset in less than an hour with little previous experience of actually building apps is still a great achievement for Sumerian.  The AR/VR industry urgently needs more content and more exposure and this is particularly the case in Education.  Tools that allow students and teachers to create their own content are a vital step to the adoption of the hardware.  For professionals too these kind of tools are important for prototyping.  Often it’s very difficult for clients to visualise what an app might look like, but companies don’t want to invest a lot up front in building proofs of concept.  Tools like Sumerian can help with rapid prototyping and this is key to managing customers’ expectations on a project.  We will soon get to a point where there will be multiple different tools for the relatively inexperienced user.  Initially this will probably lead to a great deal of not very good content, but I think in the long-term this will be very beneficial in moving the industry forward.