As I began thinking about what would be a good topic for this blog post on Virtual and Augmented Reality, it occurred to me that the design community is, generally speaking, split into two camps regarding the acceptance of Immersive Media: skeptics and evangelists. While I certainly count myself among the latter, I felt like it might be more beneficial to begin speaking to the former. Why?
This is a stock photo that pops up when you search the internet for Virtual Reality:
I mean, look at this girl! She’s riding her bike in a VR headset, blissfully unaware of everything around her. VR must be fun!
Clearly, even a brand new UX designer would look at this scenario and realize how silly it is to think that anyone would possibly find this experience enjoyable. And yet, this is often the type of image that is used to showcase VR. The message always seems to be about the interface (e.g., a headset) rather than the experience that the interface enables, or the design considerations that the headset necessitates. It’s no surprise that many designers are skeptical of this new medium, particularly if they’ve never had the opportunity to investigate what is even possible.
So, why should a designer be willing to investigate these aforementioned possibilities? While I happen to be biased, I believe that we are rapidly moving toward a world where immersive media will be integrated into many aspects of our daily lives. These new technologies can enable a new breadth of experiences, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. As UX and UI designers, we will be playing an integral part in both creating and discovering what is possible. We owe it to users to begin to investigate what VR and AR mean for the future of interaction design, so that as future users embrace these new modalities, we are ensuring an enjoyable, useful, and effective experience.
So, where do we begin?
When we discuss Immersive Media, I am specifically referencing new methods of interaction that combine three-dimensionality with tracking of the user or the surrounding. In the case of Virtual Reality, the top-tier of current technology integrates user input into the experience, either through menus and interactions or actual manipulation of a 3D object or world. For Augmented Reality, this exists both as an extension of existing 2D interfaces—such as smartphones—and an integral part of emerging interfaces—such as AR headsets—superimposing 3D objects into a user’s view of their surroundings.
Thinking about the possibilities of designing for immersive media, it becomes apparent that we must begin to examine design beyond a 2D screen, even beginning to consider design disciplines that are not even directly related to digital interfaces. Because these new immersive media are predicated on interactions in three dimensions, there is a significant, concrete connection to long-established physical design disciplines such as industrial design, interior design, and architecture. A few concepts that we must consider include:
This is a factor for both Virtual and Augmented Reality. The more empowered that a user can feel, the more likely they are to perceive the benefits of immersive technology. One of the key design considerations here is the opportunity for choice (or the illusion thereof). When designing for a traditional 2D interface, there is often a fairly limited number of interactive elements at any given time. With immersive media, the better experiences forgo linear user flows and allow for a large number of possibilities, thus increasing user agency and sense of presence. Which brings me to my next key design consideration:
This is one of the most fundamental factors when designing for Virtual Reality. Presence allows for a user to feel an actual sense of “there-ness.” Adding depth through three-dimensional design allows for approximating a true sense of scale, a sense of proximity, and a sense of distance. This can trick the user into feeling as though they are actually in a given space. Once the user feels that this is the case, he or she is more likely to have a greater sense of connection to the content/interactions.
This is a primary consideration for head-mounted displays (VR HMDs). By isolating the user, you are able to eliminate external distractions, thus decreasing cognitive load. This becomes beneficial as it directly leads to a greater sense of presence. The more comfortable the physical fit of the VR headset, the more isolating the experience can be.
No surprise, but this is a major design consideration for Augmented Reality. When designing for AR, the designer must ask himself or herself if the element that they are designing acts to supplement or enhance a user’s physical environment. If so, it can be hugely beneficial for a variety of purposes.
While the scope of this post is simply meant to be an introduction to some key concepts, my hope is that it will provide some insight into the types of factors we must consider as designers and promote some interest among the skeptics. If I’ve peaked your curiosity and you’d like to investigate a bit more, be sure to check out my talk User Experience Design in Virtual and Augmented Reality at edUi 2017.
About the Author
Dan Cotting is a strategically-minded user experience and interaction designer who specializes in virtual reality. Dan believes that this new and emerging medium presents a wealth of opportunity for businesses and nonprofits.
His focus has been on the non-gaming application of immersive design: specifically, designing for utility, information, and education. In addition to his role as a UX designer, he is currently a freelance writer on the subject of immersive media UX design/strategic content development. You can read some of his long-form articles at www.medium.com/@dancotting.