What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality (VR) is the experience where users feel immersed in a simulated world, 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.
VR—Entering New Worlds Through Equipment
In VR design, your goal is for users to experience an alternative existence through whichever senses your design can access. The more your design reaches your users through—particularly—sight, hearing and touch, the more immersed they will be in virtual reality. You therefore want to isolate users as far as possible from the real world.
VR’s history began with the View-Master (a stereoscopic visual simulator) in 1939 and Morton Heilig’s 1950s’ Sensorama multi-experience theatre. The development of the first head-mounted display (HMD) followed in 1968. Then, designers focused on professionally geared applications in the 1970s and 1980s. With more sophisticated technology, they could tailor computerized VR experiences to the fields of military training, medicine and flight simulation. After 1990, just after “Virtual Reality” became popularly known, VR entered the wider consumer world through video-games. VR has since become progressively more affordable and sophisticated.
Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality vs Mixed Reality
In virtual reality, you isolate the user from the real world and create presence in a virtual environment.
VR differs from augmented reality, where users remain anchored in the real world but experience computerized overlays. AR and VR—along with mixed reality (MR), where users interact with digital elements which are anchored to the real world—come under the umbrella term extended reality (XR). In AR, users employ devices (e.g., smartphones) to find parts of the real world (e.g., a room) overlaid with computer-generated input. Designers insert a range of digital elements such as graphics and GPS overlays which adjust to changes in the user’s environment (e.g., movement) in real time. In MR, users have a more sophisticated experience where digital interplays with real-world content—e.g., surgeons operating on patients via projected ultrasound images. In VR, users’ real-world movements translate fully to preprogrammed environments, letting them play along with convincing VR illusions. So, in VR design you offer users near-total escapism.
“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
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).
- Games and gamified experiences.
To design VR experiences, you must understand 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—By combining the above factors, you achieve 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. However, they can become disoriented. Users’ bodies are different. Where they experience VR can be just as varied. When they can move freely using 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.
- Keep peripheral motion minimal—users typically have 180-degree vision.
- 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. That means they must offer instant control which reflects real-world behavior. Users’ arms have 50–70-cm reach; so, 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.
Learn More about Virtual Reality
Learn how to design your own VR experiences with our course: How to Design for Augmented and Virtual Reality
An award-winning designer’s insights into VR UX, with tips and tools including frameworks: https://medium.com/inborn-experience/how-to-design-for-virtual-reality-66d62e88791
Smashing Magazine’s in-depth approach to VR UX design: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2017/02/getting-started-with-vr-interface-design/
A well-stocked resource on VR design, including finer points (e.g., terrain features): https://blog.marvelapp.com/design-practices-virtual-reality/