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VR Art: An Overview

My name is Davy Maxwell, I'm a digital artist, I started working in VR in 2017, I fell in love with VR immediately, played professional Echo Arena, and now have a VR company called Engine Organic. We’re currently working on a VR game called HAX, the demo has over 300K downloads and a 4.8 star rating. It’s available on Sidequest, and App Lab. I’m also working as an artist and consultant for a VR public speaking trainer called Ovation.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the challenges that face artists working in VR, and more specifically - Mobile VR. I gave this presentation at the last Spatial Ape meetup on Nov 17th 2022.

Perspective - Perspective is everything. Because VR offers more perspective, more is required by artists. Something unique to VR is the freedom players have to explore. The challenge for a VR artist is to honor the innate curiosity of players with the best graphics possible while maintaining comfort and visual continuity. This is no easy task, but there some basic tips that can help.

The Basics - Tips for VR artists to follow to ensure comfort and artistic excellence inside VR.

  1. Visual Anchors - As living, breathing humans, we constantly orient ourselves to our environment, so adding horizontal lines to walls, or grid-like designs to floors can help players remain balanced visually and feel more comfortable. Adding one static prop on a big blank wall can serve as an visual anchor point for orientation.

  2. Break Tiling - Excessive texture tiling can cause motion sickness and can look lazy. Break up tiling by adding props, or by manually tiling UVs and rotating the pattern here and there. Tiling is useful, but unnatural, and in VR can cause discomfort.

  3. Avoid Contrast - Extreme colors can cause eye-strain and add to the appearance of aliasing. Avoid dark and light in close proximity. Contrasting colors and brightness can be used to highlight game elements, but use them sparingly and intentionally.

Texel Density - The amount of Texture Pixels in a given space. Think of it like pixels-per-square-inch, or how much resolution is packed into a 3D space. Texel Density in VR is so much more important than in 2D, because of our proximity to everything around us. We can crouch down and examine the ground, or hold a prop up to our face for a better look. As artist we need to be ready for this kind of curiosity, and we should embrace it as a challenge to do better, to make our worlds richer, and allow our players to be more immersed.

  • Tip 1: Pack as much resolution in as you can. If you can afford the performance hit of a 4K texture map verse a 2K map, do it. Focus on hero assets first, things like the player’s hands or handheld items. Then work your way to a player's immediate surroundings. Use less detail in areas that won't be explored. Focus on the important things first, and be consistent.

  • Tip 2: Be consistent. If some props and assets have a high texel density, and others have a low texel density, they won’t look like they belong together. It’s okay to have different levels of texel density, so long as the difference isn’t extreme. Be consistent on similar assets. For example: if one box has a really high resolution texture, but another box right next to it has a low resolution texture, you will lose visual continuity.

Advanced Tips - Once you’ve got the basics down, refining the mood of your environments with lighting and movement can really make your world shine.

  • Mood - What do you want your players to feel? You should always have this in mind when building a world or making a game. We are people, we have emotions, and we want art to move us emotionally. Be careful to set the right mood for your app or game. Making an environment a bit lighter or a bit darker can change a player's desire to explore or how safe they feel. Use mood wisely.

  • Lighting - Baked lighting is performant and will take your environments to a whole new level. Take the time to make good lightmaps for your art. Lighting can help break tiling too. Use colored lights to highlight important details. Ask people to test your app and tell you how they feel. Are they curious to explore? Do they feel safe? A little light goes a long way.

  • Movement - Add life to your world through Shaders that move, particles that drip and dance, and creatures that bring presence. A static world is a dead world; a few well placed particle effects can bring life. Add dust to an indoor level to give it depth and mood. Add leaves to an exterior environment to show the wind. Particles are cheap and easy to make, and they will add a sparkle to your world.

Characters & Art Styles - Everyone likes to see amazing digital realism, but it’s really hard to make. Realism can suit certain VR simulations where realistic vistas are the point and purpose of the app. The biggest problem with choosing a realistic art style is that it is much harder to make, and way harder to make right. If you're making a game or app for a mobile VR headset, be very careful about choosing a realistic approach. Also, the uncanny valley is a dark place - we must not go there.

Make a good game, then make it look good.

When it comes to games, players want to play. Sure, it’s fun to explore a realistic environment, but if you’re making a game, make a game. Don’t limit yourself in the graphics department by choosing realism, choose an art style that allows you to make a bigger and better game - faster. The limitations of performance, especially on a mobile headset, will always be there, so don’t paint yourself into a corner from the start with realism. Also, your artists will have more fun and be more productive with a stylized art style.

Conclusion: Making art for VR is difficult, there is a lot more to consider; however, there is also nothing like being able to explore art in VR, or feeling the excitement of others who are discovering all the details you’ve added and subtle stories you’ve told through your work.

VR is a place like no other for artists, and we are still learning how to paint.


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