What’s becoming clear in VR development is that with the market split across Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR, the developers of some of the most successful apps like Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption and Raw Data work hard to make their software work well across all three headsets.
Even if it is hard to stand out from dozens of apps launching each week, making a virtual world available across Steam, the PlayStation Store and Oculus increases the chances of a developer finding success. Though large teams working with big budgets often turn to the Unreal world engine from Epic Games for building VR products, the very well-funded Unity Technologies is the engine most indie developers use in bringing their products to fruition across multiple systems. Unity is used by a majority of VR developers and its asset store makes it easy for developers to find cheap or free tools with which to build more immersive worlds.
VRTK — the Virtual Reality Toolkit — is one of those Unity-based tools that a large group of indie creators used to jumpstart their efforts in VR development. The open source toolset was created by Harvey Ball, also known as TheStoneFox, after he bought an HTC Vive last year.
“I wanted to build something for it as I was new to game dev. I’d been using Unity for about a month just as a hobby,” Ball wrote to me. “I tried to use the SteamVR Unity plugin and found it confusing, realized a lot of people found it confusing and started VRTK as a way to help people get into developing for VR.”
Ball’s crowdfunding on Patreon for VRTK stands at nearly $2,000 per month and the community for the effort on Slack is populated by more than 2,000 members. Here’s a list of games made with the software. Ball works on VRTK in the evenings when he can but still holds a day job as a Web developer. He says the money from Patreon isn’t his income — it’s so that “if we as a community need something that requires money then we have budget for it.” He also launched a Kickstarter project earlier this year with a very high goal for a more ambitious roll out. Though it received more than 400 backers, the project fell short of its goal.
I asked Ball to break down why he is building VRTK as an open source solution and to break down the benefits of the tools:
I wanted to make it available to as many people as possible. My belief is the more people building for VR is only better for evolving the platform. VRTK is all about getting as many people as possible working together on solutions to common problems for the common good. Also making it accessible for people new to dev but with good ideas so to remove high barriers of entry. Charging for it would just limit that for people. Plus it enables developers to build for a crazy fragmented market, using VRTK means it just works on Steam, Oculus, PSVR, etc.
The initial benefit is the VRTK abstraction layer. So if you use VRTK components for the mechanics of the game then it just works on any supported SDK. So it just works on SteamVR or Oculus or PSVR without any coding. If you build something for SteamVR you have to either write your own abstraction layer or rewrite chunks of code for other SDKs. Some popular SteamVR games already are suffering from this where they can’t be easily ported to Oculus Home. If they had been built on top of VRTK then porting is easy.
Ball said he plans to add support for Microsoft’s Windows platform as soon as he gets his hands on the controllers.
We’ve heard developers swear by VRTK in the past, but I put a call out on Twitter to find out how the toolkit has helped developers and the response was pretty strong. I’ll embed some of those tweets at the bottom of this post, but Unity developer @Mcdoogleh offered a response that summed up a lot of what I heard. The dev is working on a project based on VRTK aiming to release next year, “and without question it would’ve taken me longer to develop without VRTK.”
“It’s useful to developers for quite a lot of reasons, one of them being that as far as VR development goes, prototyping is extremely tricky. So VRTK provides…features which are useful just to play around with,” Mcdoogleh said. “It’s also end to end… So you could just use VRTK as a foundation and build up from it or update as you go along to get the latest features. Anywhere from prototyping to a release product, again, highly useful. In addition, VRTK can provide a useful point of reference to other developers, so they may not necessarily want to use VRTK, but they can use components of it as a foundation for their own code. Lastly, it’s knowing that it’s going to be supported, Harvey has been very engaged in terms of talking with developers, and has fostered a community of developers who can help each other.”
#VRTK is amazing for prototyping and showing people that never developed before that they can *create something today* and then get better.
— Luigi (@luigirenna) September 27, 2017
We used it @SetappCompany to boost developers’ skills of those without VR dev experience. Just to focus on the big picture at first.
— Michał VRóblewski (@wrobel221) September 27, 2017
Expanding slightly, I was able to create this prototype in a month (6 hrs of work a week) using the VRTK. https://t.co/vM0vSfX6Gm
— Highsight (@Highsight) September 27, 2017
I started creating everything VR related from scratch, but then learned the power of the VRTK. Night and day difference in quality!
— Highsight (@Highsight) September 27, 2017
I was able to add Rift support to Microcosm in literally _one sitting_ because of VRTK. I likely wouldn’t support Rift otherwise, tbh.
— paulstraw (@paulstraw) September 27, 2017
First prototype of the game I’m working took 3 hours using VRTK. Got the core mechanics done in that time 😋
— Julian Pritchard (@Pandawlf) September 27, 2017
— Vivian Tan (@vivslaboratory) September 27, 2017
VRTK is incredibly helpful for our development of educational VR tools. From time saving to teaching, it is a simple and powerful resource.
— Devon Allcoat #EGX (@DevonAllcoat) September 27, 2017
VRTK is probably the single greatest accelerant of our Vive dev efforts
— cole boyer (@cbboyer) September 27, 2017
Basically @VR_Toolkit accelerated our Dev process and gave us many new ideas for interaction and play
— David Thomson (@tartanski) September 27, 2017
Being non-coder @VR_Toolkit has helped me massively! Allowed me to actually create games purely using the GUI.
— Rosie Summers (@rosesummervr) September 27, 2017
— Fuseman 🎮📱 (@FusedVR) September 27, 2017
LOVE VRTK. I’m not a Unity dev by trade but was able to make a small VR interactive experience in a weekend after learning VRTK basics
— Katie (@hughezilla) September 27, 2017
— Tommy Maloteaux (@TMaloteaux) September 27, 2017
VRTK allows me to test ideas without having to first hammer out the technical systems, saving tens of hours of time. HUGE help in dev time
— Michael Angel (@MichPAngel) September 27, 2017
VRTK easily cut the development time on Colourise in half. Maybe more. It’s always the first asset imported when we setup a new VR prototype
— Jake Wade (@Jokwod) September 27, 2017
Invaluable time-saver when it comes to prototyping, especially for novice Unity devs. Though we’ve been using it less as the dev team grows.
— Aldis Sipolins (@AldisSipolins) September 27, 2017
Yep. It was a mid-development miracle bailout for Stage Presence. Used it daily for arch viz after that. Most important VR dev tool imo
— Jon Dadley (@JonDadley) September 27, 2017
Kitten Cannon VR was built in a month. Would have been longer w/out it. Helpd @hughezilla learn more advanced Unity stuff by showing VRTK.
— Chris Gallello (@cgallello) September 27, 2017
Figuring out how to import VRTK was my introduction to working with Unity over a year ago, & in Nov we’ll have a game on Steam. Invaluable.
— Donald Dunbar (@333uuu) September 27, 2017