How The Average Queer Can Start Making Virtual Reality Experiences

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feature image via Shutterstock

It’s been a big week in VR. Google announced their new VR headset, Daydream View. It’s designed to be super comfortable and light—it’s made of the same fabrics as active-wear. It works with Daydream compatible devices, which is mostly Google’s new phone, Pixel and Pixel XL. Comfort isn’t the only thing it’s got going for it—at $80, the price is right for the masses. The phone itself is in the $650 range, but most cutting-edge smartphones are also in that price range. Plus Daydream View has a game coming out called EarthShape that stars queer heartthrob and former Great British Bakeoff host Sue Perkins. If Sue of Mel and Sue fame can’t sell you on VR, well then I can’t help you.

Another time we had a big week in VR, I wrote about it. And I wrote that VR is a new frontier in the same way the internet was. The difference now is that we have the capability to insert ourselves into the early design and development of this new world. We have to do it, as queers, people of color, women, all or some combination of the above. We have to because people can still get harassed off the internet. The internet was never made for us. That’s what happens when only a small subsection of end users are part of the development process. I argued that we have to make this next reality for us right from the get-go, or we’ll wind up with yet another space in which we are subjugated.

What I didn’t really discuss was the how. I’ve complained about how poor I am, and how that affects the kinds of things I’m able to write about for you. The cost prohibition of many high-end VR headsets, computing equipment and methods of learning how to make games in VR sets the barrier to entry high—higher than many members of marginalized communities can realistically tackle. But as equipment gets less expensive and more ubiquitous, I think it’s time to start talking about practical ways for the average queermo to jump right in. I have some thoughts of my own, but I’m not a VR developer. So I turned to queer virtual reality dilettante and nerdburger Miki Habryn for a few pokes in the right direction. Here are a few things to do to get going.


Okay, Actually Learn to Code

I’ve said it one million times—everyone (yes, I mean everyone) with a computer needs to know a little bit of basic code. It’s like learning the basics of how to care for your car if you drive one, or how to care for your knives if you cook. If you use it, your technology’s efficiency and longevity will skyrocket if you learn just a teeny tiny bit about how it works under the hood. A real quick recap of some resources out there that you might find helpful in this pursuit.

Scratch

If you don’t understand if/then statements or the way computers think, this is a really fun way to get an idea about that very quickly. Made by the folks at MIT, Scratch lets you build cute little games using snap-together virtual blocks that mirror how you might build the same sorts of games using code. Also it’s free. If you’ve never looked at code before, it’s a great introduction! You know what else is a great introduction…

Harvard CS50

This is an online extension course offered by Harvard that walks you through how computers actually work—and the basics of C, PHP, Javascript, SQL, CSS and HTML. Using edX, it’s TOTALLY FRIGGIN FREE. Think about that. We live in an age where you can take Computer Science 50 at Harvard for ZERO DOLLARS. If you want a certificate, it’s $90. But if you don’t want that, YOU CAN JUST HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE FOR ONLY THE COST OF YOUR TIME.

Treehouse

Treehouse costs $25 per month, so not nearly as free as the above. But they have one of the most comprehensive coding video libraries out there. I pay for Treehouse. I use it regularly. I highly recommend it. Pro-tip, you should check to see if your library system grants you access to Treehouse—if you live in New York and have a Queens Library Card, for example, you can has Treehouse. And they actually do have game development courses on here, including some in—


Unity, Friends, Unity

This is where talking to Miki came in SUPER handy, because I asked her what sort of software she uses and she confirmed my suspicion: Unity. Unity is an extremely versatile platform used to build all sorts of games, from the Indie to the mainstream. “I’ve been using Unity with my Vive, and thoroughly enjoying it,” she says. “I have limited experience with 3D or games software, so there’s some surprises in working with the environment if coming from a different technical background, but there’s copious tutorials and documentation–I think so many people have piled into games programming with more enthusiasm than experience over the years that it’s a very well-blazed trail.”

You might be thinking that such a versatile game engine used for huge titles MUST cost money, and it does. For those people. For people just starting out, using it for personal reasons, or anyone who’s game is making less than $100,000, Unity is free. Yes free. You can just have it. It runs on Mac and Windows.

If you’re not into paying for Treehouse tutorials, badass game developer Zoë Quinn covers Unity in her Sortingh.at tool (a must see for anyone thinking about making a game. In her copy, she concedes that the barrier to entry on Unity is pretty high. But she doesn’t think that should discourage you:

…a lot of people have found it daunting to use as a starting point. You do need to know some level of programming. Not a ton, but knowing some basics will help you tremendously (if you’re not sure how “if/then”s work, then maybe this applies to you). The interface has adobe syndrome as well – it can do damn near anything, but the learning curve can be a little steep for some people. Not only that, but working in a 3rd dimension instead of making a simpler 2D game means that there’s more that you need to worry about, there’s more that can go wrong, and the other tools in this guide will *likely* have you up and running a bit faster. […]

That said, if you’re determined to push past the learning curve, are ok with maybe trying something else if Unity is too much at first, want to learn a bit of coding, and are making the very valid choice of starting with Unity because that’s the tool you’re planning on sticking with in the long term, let’s party.

And party you shall, with all sorts of documentation, starting with the tutorials on Unity’s own site.


Gotta Get That Hardware

You’ll notice that Miki says she uses Vive, which is one of those very expensive (but really effing awesome) VR sets. It’s a room set, meaning that you walk around the room to play games instead of remaining seated. And it’s badass. “VR without controllers like the Vive’s still can be a fantastic experience,” says Miki, “but there’s a whole ‘nother level to it when you can interact with the environment in a natural, haptic way.” The Vive requires a pretty sick PC to pair up with, and the equipment itself costs $800. But you’ll also notice that I’m writing this because the hardware is becoming MORE accessible. You can use Daydream View starting in November, and Google Cardboard starting right the hell now. Google’s VR Developer documentation says Unity is TOTALLY still an option, as is Google VR SDK for Android, Google VR SDK for iOS, and Unreal Engine 4.


But Where Should I Begin?

Obviously, this doesn’t tell you what to make. Because that’s up to you. But Miki has some advice: “Work on something you’re excited to make! (Also my usual advice for learning to code.) Watch/read just enough tutorial to have an inkling of how to proceed, and then plough straight into it. Go back to tutorials/forums/friends whenever you get frustrated. Don’t be afraid of getting stuck or getting something wrong; accept that you’ll throw everything away and start over from scratch more than once in the process.” So have at it, queermos. Tell your story. Bring your world virtual.


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Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 528 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. THANK YOU. VR changed my world and I like to describe it as when the first moving pictures came out and people ran out of the theatre because they thought the train was coming right them. Now you’re giving me concrete steps to making it happen?

    I’m a bit more interested in VR film and videography but also have always wanted to code, so I just enrolled in CS50 and I’m digging it. Can’t wait to program some amazing virtual content.

  2. I love this post–reminds me of the LWT NYC talk about how the weed industry is being dominated by women. It’s definitely something to be aware of when a new industry pops up. Downloading Unity now 😉

  3. I love VR so much, it is such an exciting medium. I only have the Oculus DK2 but still get so immersed in it. Unreal Engine and Unity are both great for making games and experiences and there are a ton of free tutorials out there.

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