Designing for Virtual Reality: designers talking about their biggest challenges

We always fantasized about living in a world of Virtual Reality. As these digital worlds become more real, so do the actions we need to take to enable these types of experience.

State of UX 201 7, Illustration by Pablo Stanley
Following up our report on the State of UX in 2017, we are interviewing designers who are big thinkers for each one of these important themes for the design community in 2017. Let’s keep the conversation going!

If designing two-dimensional interfaces already require so much work, knowledge and effort — what does it mean to design an entire new world that is able to augment our own? Andy Stone and Mike Alger are designers working on solving this puzzle that is considered the next frontier for our field.

A body and space puzzle

The first idea about Virtual Reality that needs to be demystified is the paradox of “Virtual Reality” itself. It is a great name that has been around for a while, but we know that it goes beyond that: immersive experiences are about expanding the reality that we live in.

More than a new interaction paradigm, Virtual Reality requires a deep understanding on physical and spatial matters — sound design, architecture, lighting, physics are just a few examples of things to be considered.

This new space can redefine one’s personal space, personal image (think avatars), and social interactions.

Before designing for Virtual Reality, we need to consider our own bias and the user’s side-effects of such immersive experiences. It will require a clear guideline and an ongoing ethic discussion as we introduce new social paradigms.

Andy Stone is a partner at Emerson Stone and writes about Virtual Reality on Medium. Mike Alger has been working with Virtual Reality for the past couple of years and is the author of great introductory videos about VR.

How do you see the current stage of Virtual Reality?

Andy: I think that it’s interesting how mature Google’s designs look in VR/AR after such a short period of time (at least in the public eye). Through our own research, and looking across the industry, it’s amazing to see how much of Google Material plays within the virtual space. It was cute and useful for mobile/web design, but it feels completely at home within VR — the interplay of shadows and depth are actually usable within a full virtual space. I think that the current stage of VR/AR is still very demo-heavy as people are understanding what the technology can really do. The first decade of film was just short clips and tests before people understood how to use film in storytelling — I think we’re in that same phase with VR. I think the biggest challenge right now is the usage and adoption by the general public.

People don’t gravitate to VR without someone teaching them about it, it feels too new or too tech-heavy. Rather than advertising for a particular app or platform, advertising for VR should be about the whole industry and how it can transform the way that we interact with entertainment, work and each other.

Mike: I think we’re about to come down the crest of the hype curve. Headsets are out, the early adopters who were waiting (either patiently or not) have bought them and the first apps are out there. But finding a great long-form experience or a use case that keeps you coming back frequently is difficult for a lot of people. So people may be underwhelmed with what exists and begin looking for the next hype. VR is, of course, only one in a list of hot news trends like 3D TVs or cloud computing once were. Maybe machine learning is one of the next ones.

I didn’t get into VR for what exists now. I got into it because I could imagine the use cases for it in the future.

But I didn’t get into VR for what exists now. I got into it because I could imagine the use cases for it in the future. And then I realized that there’s nothing stopping those things from existing now. You could say “In the future, radiologists will look at scan data in headset displays. It will increase their diagnostic accuracy, patient understanding, yadda yadda…” But when you think about it, why isn’t that now? Literally everything exists for that pipeline right now. MRI and CT scans are all delivered in DICOM format. Free programs can be used to get images and even 3D models from that. Unity can be used to view those in VR. It can be done fairly easily, and the longer you take to make it, the more people suffer or die from what will eventually be outdated 2D screen diagnosis. Maybe that’s the dramatic way to say it, but it gets the point across that I felt like all the legos were dumped out just sitting there and I was looking around at the world not building things.

So, why aren't we seeing more of these cases?

Mike: Because we need designers and developers to make it and it takes time, and of course time costs money and so on. But what I’m getting at is that connects to the hype curve thing. Yeah, the experiences and use cases are frankly underwhelming right now and it’s the perfect time to show up and be the Charlie Chaplin, the Orson Welles, the Bill Gates… The people who leverage the potential of a medium to make/distribute content that people don’t even want to live without once they know it exists.

An architect won’t want to design a house only in 2D and a buyer won’t want to commit without seeing a virtual walkthrough. A modeler will groan about the days they had to use a rectangular marquee on a 2D screen to select vertices, then rotate it to deselect the ones behind that they didn’t want. Civil engineers will just treat a headset as part of the equipment they use, viewing the way underground wiring and plumbing relates to their current location. And again, none of those rely on some future breakthrough. Everything exists for it now.

What are the challenges ahead for Virtual Reality?

Andy: Eventually, I think that every industry can benefit from VR/AR (in the same way that every industry has benefitted from the computer or mobile devices).

The big industries benefitting from VR are going to be engineering, industrial design, architecture, medical — anything that naturally uses CAD or imaging software.

But right now, the switch isn’t quite worth it for most companies or industries. For the next year or two, the big industries benefitting from VR are going to be engineering, industrial design, architecture, medical — anything that naturally uses CAD or imaging software and wants to see it in a more realistic setting. AR is a bit more compelling as it has such a wider possible net — it could be driving directions displayed on a window for a driver, it could be seeing the internal wiring on a wall for a contractor, or educational materials overlaid on a desk in a classroom. I think the next couple of years are going to be filled with designers and startups transitioning content from static screens to augmented overlays in the real world.

The next couple of years are going to be filled with designers and startups transitioning content from static screens to augmented overlays

Mike: So the challenges are just the same as any other product: Design useful and/or meaningful interactions, build them, and continue iterating. The opportunity there now is to take what exists and apply your own design philosophy to it. Make it readable, minimal, comfortable, and so intuitive that people know what to do without thinking.

Who will design for Virtual Reality?

Mike: While Oculus, Steam, Daydream, etc. do create content, they are primarily platforms for developers to distribute their own. The question could be turned to say who will design for the iPhone? UX designers at SaaS companies or Apple? Of course Apple will continue to make stuff for the iPhone, but no company has delusions about being able to make every single useful thing, so they enable others to do so and make money, too, through their platforms.

Andy: As design moves away from screens into the real world, I think that most digital designers are woefully unprepared. The last few years have been spent focusing on the size of a viewport and how to design responsively for it. Now the viewport doesn’t exist, there are no edges, and the size of something is relative only to the real world. Design agencies and tech giants are going to start hiring environmental designers and architects to help design these systems as they understand navigation and way-finding within three dimensions. For content companies and SaaS providers, their content will live more wholly within established systems like Google’s and Facebook’s platforms. The tech giants will define the standards and core experiences, and companies will use these with their own content systems.

Follow Andy Stone on Medium and Mike Alger on Twitter to keep update about their writing and work. See you in the next interview.

Author: Caio Braga

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