Virtual reality (VR) is the experience of full immersion in a simulated world achieved via hardware—e.g., headsets—and software. Designers create VR experiences—e.g., virtual museums—transporting users to 3D environments where they freely move and interact to perform predetermined tasks and attain goals—e.g., learning.
To create great VR experiences, it’s vital to design with a first person perspective in mind.
Virtual Reality – Entering New Worlds Through Equipment
Virtual reality describes experiencing an alternative existence vis-à-vis the number of senses “exposed”/“immersed”. VR’s history began with the View-Master (a stereoscopic visual simulator) in 1939 and Morton Heilig’s 1950s’ Sensorama multi-experience theatre, before the development of the first head-mounted display (HMD) in 1968 and professionally geared 1970s’/1980s’ applications of now-computerized VR in the fields of military training, medicine and flight simulation. After 1990, just after “Virtual Reality” became popularly known, VR entered the consumer world in earnest, principally via video-games, becoming progressively more affordable and sophisticated.
Designing for VR means isolating users from the real world as far as possible, to optimize simulated experiences.
In virtual reality you isolate the user from the real world and create presence in a virtual environment.
It differs from augmented reality, where users remain anchored in the real world but experience computerized overlays. In VR, users’ real-world movements translate fully to preprogrammed environments, letting them play along with convincing VR illusions. In VR, you have three “genres” to reach users: hyper-immersive or emotion-based designs (which can involve scents), live-action-style POV (first-person point-of-view) documentaries (e.g., exploring virtual rainforests), and, indeed, games/gamified experiences.
“Virtual Reality is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
— Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO
VR - Designing to Dupe the Senses
Facilitating VR experiences entails understanding human physiology and psychology—users’ needs, limitations, etc.—and what makes VR experiences enjoyable versus unpleasant.
You should focus on:
Believability – incorporate features (principally images and sound) to envelop users entirely in 3D environments.
Interactivity – make designs intuitive; remove outside-world interference. While you’re presenting brand-new environments, how users interact with these must match what they’re used to doing in the real world (e.g., punches are still punches).
Explorability – ensure users can freely move about and discover the “reality” offered.
Immersiveness – combining the above factors achieves the goal: inserting users’ presences in your design.
Throughout the design process, you should consider:
Safety and Comfort – Prevent virtual-reality sickness (like motion sickness, but stemming from sensory conflict/triggers from artificial environments). You want to immerse users in a—virtually—hermetically sealed environment, but they can become disoriented. Users’ bodies are different, and where they experience VR can be just as varied. From moving freely in your design, they can collide with/trip over things or fall. While some devices—e.g., the HTC Vive—warn users about objects, don’t overlook safety. Neck strains can arise from headset use. Additionally:
Let users see and use controls/menus.
Avoid changes in brightness and speed (don’t accelerate users; avoid flashing lights).
Keep frame rates high.
Users typically have 180-degree vision – keep peripheral motion minimal.
Interaction and Reaction – Design ergonomically for users’ natural movement. Systems’ head-tracking, motion-tracking and (possibly) eye-tracking sensors and hand controllers must respond dynamically, offering instant control mirroring real-world behavior. Users’ arms have 50–70-cm reach; place key interactions in this zone.
Image and Text Scale – Prevent eye strain and help user orientation with depth perception: your visuals keep changing, so make images more detailed as users approach them. Use eye-catching text. Comfortable focusing distances are typically 0.5–20 meters.
Sound – Use sound for atmosphere, and to give users a sense of place in the environment and cues.
As VR keeps advancing into the mainstream, a demographic shift is inevitable as more users expect to be teleported into exciting new experiences.The less they sense your interface, the more immersed they become.