When testing these companies’ design capabilities, we look at both how well the company incorporates the key principles of VR design as well as how facile it is with the most important design tools and frameworks.
One of Unity 3D’s main competitors, Unreal Engine is also a gaming engine with VR integrations, an asset store, and great documentation. The graphics are debatably more advanced and realistic, and the learning curve is similar to Unity. Many of the VR demos built with UE4 are much more lifelike and smoother to navigate. It provides a great performance with the conveniences of a modern editing environment. UE4 also exports to most platforms, though slightly less than Unity. Mixed reality games can also be created effortlessly using UE4.
3DS Max and Maya
These are Autodesk products for modeling, animation, lighting, and VFX. They don’t have VR support by default, but you can get them through pricey plugins. AutoCAD and 3DS Max are long-time standards in the architectural design industry and have some of the most precise tools in their UI. Like almost all GUIs for building 3D environments and drawings, these tend to be quite massive UIs with a lot of tools hidden behind menus, sub-menus, and toolbars.
There’s a huge community of people devoted to this software and its use. And Blender is quickly becoming a favorite modeler for many VR development companies. Its free and open-source software, written in Python, is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Many websites provide tutorial videos, forums, and documentation. The software’s official documentation is also quite comprehensive. Mainly for modeling, UV mapping, lighting, rigging, and animation, you can export your models to a multitude of formats that can then be used with many other tools.
Houdini has become particularly popular among virtual reality companies working in the game design and VFX space because it makes teamwork and iterative design very easy. The tool uses a “node-based workflow,” which means that the entire set of actions taken during a design process gets stored inside interconnected nodes. Thus, the best practices from one process can be shared with a team working on another process effortlessly. A design can even be reshaped completely—a virtual reality developer can simply go back to a particular node and make some tweaks, instead of redoing it from scratch.
Google’s SketchUp is a basic modeling application with a very low learning curve that can get anyone up and running in a short amount of time. The tutorials on the website are excellent, not only teaching the software’s basics but also providing introductory lessons in basic 3D modeling concepts. After quickly learn the basics of modeling with SketchUp, you can then move onto more advanced tools like Blender if you desire. SketchUp’s great for modeling, quickly learning the lingo, and then moving onto bigger and better things—especially since there’s a free trial version available.
Other design tools commonly used by VR tech companies include Tinkercad, 3D Slash, Voxel Builder, MagicaVoxel, Autodesk 123d, Sculptris, Onshape, Fusion360, Solidworks, and Cinema 4D.
There are three major frameworks to choose from when designing for VR:
- Mozilla A-Frame – It’s used for Web VR and can be used on platforms such as Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, and Oculus Rift.
- Daydream VR – This is used for mid-range VR and works with mobile phones only.
- Unity VR/Unreal SDK – It’s used for high-end headsets, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and HoloLens (AR).