User Experience (UX) in VR

Posted on Fri, October 07, 2016 in User Interface, Web Design, by Topher Young

UX, meet VR

Being a kid born in the 80's and having spent my formative years in the 90's, it is quite surreal that Virtual Reality has finally become a reality. After three decades of it being a work of "fiction", it's now here. The future is now! The idea of VR is not a new concept. I can still vividly recall the rad Nintendo Virtual Boy commercials along with the classic 90's sci-fi movies The Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix. Regardless of the hunger for VR being at a fever pitch, the hardware never was able to truly produce the concept people craved and truly immerse the user. Until now...

A month ago, GRAYBOX purchased us a brand new HTC Vive. I'd like to take this moment to preface that I have had my head in the sand when it comes to VR the past five years or so. I've watched the Oculus Rift hype from the sidelines only – besides doing the Rollercoaster simulation, I've not touched the things. From the first moment I experienced the Vive, I was completely mindblown. I immediately knew what had always been missing from previous VR iterations and why I think we are on the verge of ushering in a new paradigm in technology; the controllers. The controllers turned what was once a planetarium-like experience into something tangible, something real. It gave the user an experience.

Being a UX nerd, I immediately was drawn to how seamless the interactions with the environment were. As I played through a few rounds of Space Pirate Trainer, I began to think about how little I had to think to accomplish a goal. One of the main UX mantras is to make the user do as little thinking as possible. Every action needs to feel natural and intuitive. Thinking beyond shooting drones down in space, my mind began to think about how VR could impact other aspects of everyday life and how a new chapter of UX will need to be explored.

Imagine using an ecommerce platform in a VR space. What does the environment look like? What kind of actions will the user be able to do? Instead of clicking a button, what if a user will one day be able to pick the item up, inspect it in a 3D space and then physically place the item into a cart? 

Applying 2D principles to a 3D world

One of the major shifts in UX thinking will be accounting for the dimension of depth. Currently, every web-based user experience is rendered on a 2 dimensional surface (ie, the screen). Some design trends like Google's Material Design have began tapping into the integration of UI items having depth to them. These principles could be roughly translatable into the 3 dimensional space but Material Design is more of a pseudo-depth, in that it still lives in the land of the Flatlanders. While not the answer, Material Design is, in my opinion, a good starting point to this type of thinking.

To take it beyond the current, known trends, Digital UX designers will need to start transitioning into thinking more like Product Designers. Think of the people who design chairs, door handles, and other tangible objects that live in our current real life 'reality'. The book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman will become more relevant than ever once VR UX becomes the norm.

User immersion and body tracking

A key feature the Vive introduced is the ability to track the user within a confined space. Currently, the space is limiting but true movement can be achieved instead of via the use of a joystick or control pad. Having the physicality of movement at our disposal, what kind of doors open from a UX perspective? Going back to our ecommerce example above, what if a traditional website converted into a virtual storefront in which a user can walk around and explore the space. No more pages, nor pagination. Just endless aisles of products that can be physically walked through.

Haptic Feedback or bust

Although not a new technology, haptic feedback is critical to the success of anything virtual from a UX perspective. Having your sense of touch triggered when performing an action makes that action "real" and when your brain receives that sensation, your actions have been validated. Currently, the Vive has a very elementary haptic system. Looking to science fiction for a glimpse into the future, the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline describes the future of haptics and what will eventually need to become a reality if VR is to become a viable UX option. In the book, the user feels beyond vibrations. The haptic suits mimic things like resistance, temperature, and liquid.

In conclusion, we UX designers are standing on the edge of a cliff looking down into a dark abyss that is the unknown future of VR and its impact on, not only gaming and entertainment but, our lives as a whole. I think it's time to take a leap and see what kind of awesomeness we can create and discover.

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