Virtual Reality

Your constantly-updated definition of Virtual Reality and collection of videos and articles
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What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a simulated, digital experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. VR experiences are created with computer technology and presented to the user through a VR headset or head-mounted display (HMD), which creates an immersive and interactive three-dimensional environment. VR should be experienced and interacted with as if that virtual environment were real.

The concept of virtual reality first emerged with the development of stereoscopic images in the 1800s. Learn more about the origins and evolution of VR in this video: 

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The Opportunities and Limits of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality offers infinite opportunities and has the potential to reshape how we learn, train, and socialize. Here are some of the opportunities and limits of virtual reality. 

"Virtual reality is the 'ultimate empathy machine'. These experiences are more than documentaries. They're opportunities to walk a mile in someone else's shoes."

— Chris Milk, CEO of Within

Opportunities

Training and Education: VR provides a safe and controlled environment for training in various fields, such as medical procedures, industrial processes, and emergency response. It enables learners to practice and learn from mistakes without real-world consequences. 

  • Google Earth VR: Allows users to explore real-world locations in a virtual environment, making it an educational tool for geography and exploration.

  • Medical Realities: Offers surgical training in VR, allowing medical professionals to practice procedures in a risk-free environment.

Immersive Entertainment: VR provides opportunities for immersive entertainment experiences, such as gaming, interactive storytelling, and virtual tourism. VR allows users to become active participants in their favorite stories and explore new worlds. 

  • Beat Saber: A popular VR rhythm game that combines music and lightsabers for an immersive gaming experience.

  • Half-Life: Alyx: A first-person shooter game set in the Half-Life universe, offering an engaging narrative and interactive gameplay.

Remote Collaboration and Interaction: VR facilitates remote collaboration and socializing—users from different locations can meet,  work, and chat together in shared virtual spaces. 

  • VRChat: A social platform that allows users to create and customize avatars and engage with others in various virtual worlds.

  • Rec Room: A virtual social club where users can participate in various activities and games.

Health and Well-Being: VR has shown promise in therapeutic applications, including counseling, exposure therapy for phobias, stress reduction, and pain management. 

  • Meditation and Relaxation Apps: VR apps like "Guided Meditation VR" provide calming environments for relaxation and stress relief.

  • PTSD Therapy: Virtual reality apps like Amelia are used for exposure therapy to treat PTSD in veterans and first responders.

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VR expert Mel Slater describes how VR can help with our mental health and facilitate self-counseling. 

Design and Prototyping: VR can transform product design as it enables designers to create and interact with virtual prototypes. 

  • IrisVR: A platform that enables architects and designers to visualize and walk through 3D models of their creations in VR.

  • Tilt Brush: An application for 3D painting and art creation in virtual reality.

Limits

Hardware Requirements: High-quality VR experiences often require powerful and expensive hardware, such as high-end virtual reality headsets and powerful computers. This can limit accessibility and adoption, particularly for users who cannot afford the necessary equipment.

Adverse Health Effects: Motion sickness is a well-known issue of VR. However, eye strain and even seizures are less well-known, among other adverse health effects. Illness and discomfort can hinder the adoption of VR. 

Key Considerations for Virtual Reality Design

VR presents unique challenges and considerations compared to traditional 2D design. These considerations encompass the technical, experiential, and ethical aspects of VR design to create immersive, enjoyable, and safe virtual reality experiences.

User Comfort and Safety: Prevent motion sickness, eye strain and other discomfort with optimized frame rates, reduced latency, and comfort features like teleportation for locomotion.

Immersive Audio: Pay attention to 3D spatial audio to enhance the sense of presence and immersion within the virtual environment.

User Interface (UI) Design: Design intuitive and easily navigable user interfaces that are seamlessly integrated into the VR environment, which ensures clarity and accessibility.

Interaction Design: Implement natural and intuitive interaction methods such as hand tracking, gesture recognition, and motion controllers to enhance user engagement.

Scale and Proportion: Ensure that objects and spaces in the VR environment maintain realistic scale and proportion to create a convincing sense of presence.

Performance Optimization: Optimize assets and code to maintain smooth performance and reduce hardware requirements, making the VR experience accessible to a broader audience.

Navigation and Wayfinding: Create clear visual cues and landmarks to guide users through the virtual environment, ensuring they can easily orient themselves.

Storytelling and Narrative: Utilize storytelling techniques to engage users emotionally and guide them through the experience, fostering a deeper connection.

Content Creation: Take full advantage of the VR medium to offer unique experiences that are not possible in traditional media.

Accessibility and Inclusivity: Consider diverse audiences and accessibility features, such as adjustable font sizes, voice commands, or custom controller mappings.

An illustration that represents inclusivity in design. There are four icons: an eye for blindness and low vision; a wheelchair for mobility disabilities; an ear for deafness or hard of hearing and lastly a brain for neurodiversity.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Testing and Feedback: Continuously test and gather user feedback to identify and address design flaws, comfort issues, and usability concerns.

Performance Feedback: Provide users with feedback on their interactions, such as haptic feedback, visual cues, and audio responses, to enhance the feeling of agency.

Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality (AR)

VR differs from augmented reality, where users remain anchored in the real world but experience computerized overlays. VR and AR, along with mixed reality (MR), where users interact with digital elements that 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-life movements fully translate to preprogrammed environments, letting them play with convincing VR illusions. So, in VR design, you offer users deeper immersion. 

“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, CEO of Meta

Learn More about Virtual Reality

Learn how to design your own VR experiences with our course: UX Design for Virtual Reality.

Read Jason Jerald’s comprehensive book on VR, The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality.

Cornel Hillmann’s book UX for XR: User Experience Design and Strategies for Immersive Technologies, provides an in-depth examination of UX design for VR and beyond.

Check out Smashing Magazine’s approach to VR UX design.

A well-stocked resource on VR design, including finer points (e.g., terrain features)

Take a look at this blog, “Designing User Experience for Virtual Reality (VR) applications”.

Learn more about the future of UX design in this LinkedIn article, “Navigating the Future of UX Design: Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)”.

Discover “How to Use Narrative as a Design Tool” in VR.

Questions related to Virtual Reality

How does UI design differ for VR environments compared to traditional screens?

UI design for VR environments differs significantly from traditional screen-based interfaces, primarily due to VR’s immersive and three-dimensional nature. Key differences include:

  1. Spatial Interaction: In VR, UI elements exist within a three-dimensional space, not confined to a flat screen. Designers must consider how users navigate and interact with elements in a 360-degree environment. This requires thinking about depth, distance, and perspective, unlike traditional 2D UI design.

  2. User Interaction: Interaction in VR is more natural and intuitive, often using hand gestures, head movements, and voice commands rather than keyboard, mouse, or touch inputs. UI design in VR must accommodate these interaction modes, ensuring that elements are accessible and responsive to these inputs.

  3. User Experience (UX): The immersive nature of VR creates a more intense user experience. Designers must consider user comfort, avoiding elements that might cause motion sickness or disorientation. Attention to detail is crucial, as even minor misalignments or lags can disrupt the VR experience.

  4. Visual and Audio Elements: VR UI design often incorporates 3D audio and visual cues to guide users, which is not typically a focus in traditional screen-based design. Designers must carefully craft these elements to provide intuitive navigation and feedback within the VR environment.

  5. Accessibility: Designing for accessibility in VR includes considering the physical space, user mobility, and visual and auditory accommodations. Accessible design is more complex than traditional screen-based UI, in which designers focus on just the digital interface.

  6. Performance and Optimization: VR applications demand high performance to maintain immersion and prevent discomfort. UI designers must optimize elements to ensure they are lightweight and efficient to maintain a smooth and responsive experience.

  7. Context and Environment: VR UI design must consider the entire virtual environment, not just the interface. Elements should blend seamlessly with the virtual world, enhancing the sense of presence and immersion rather than detracting from it.

Virtual Reality Interfaces for Virtual Environments examines the various types of VR interfaces and their effectiveness in enhancing user experience.

For more insights into the unique aspects of UI design in VR environments, enroll in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

How is user interaction designed in VR?

User interaction design in VR (Virtual Reality) differs significantly from traditional interfaces due to its immersive nature. Here are key considerations and methods for designing user interaction in VR:

  1. Spatial Interaction: In VR, users interact within a three-dimensional space. Designers must consider how users navigate and interact with objects in a 360-degree environment. They must understand spatial awareness and design for depth and distance.

  2. Natural and Intuitive Controls: VR interactions should mimic real-world actions to be intuitive. Hand tracking or motion controllers enable users to use natural gestures like grabbing, throwing, or pointing. Designing interactions that feel natural reduces the learning curve and enhances user engagement.

  3. User Comfort: It’s essential to design smooth and predictable movements to prevent disorientation and motion sickness. Rapid changes in direction or speed can be disorienting in VR. Providing options like teleportation for movement can help users prone to motion sickness.

  4. Haptic Feedback: Incorporating haptic feedback can significantly enhance the immersive experience. Tactile sensations that mimic real-life interactions add more realism to the VR environment.

  5. Audio Cues: Spatial audio plays a crucial role in VR interaction design. It helps orient the user within the environment and can provide feedback for interactions, enhancing the sense of presence and immersion.

  6. Visual Feedback: Clear visual cues guide the user in understanding and navigating the VR space. Immediate visual feedback for user actions is crucial. For example, highlighting objects when they are interactable or showing changes when the user manipulates an object.

  7. Accessibility: Ensure that VR experiences are accessible to users with different abilities. This includes offering alternative interaction methods for those with movement, vision, or hearing limitations.

  8. Contextual Interfaces: Unlike traditional UIs, VR interfaces should blend seamlessly with the virtual environment. Designers must integrate elements like menus or buttons in context and in a way that feels organic and unobtrusive.

  9. User Testing: Regular testing with real users is crucial. Observing how users interact with the VR environment can provide valuable insights into what works well and what needs improvement.

Read Heuristic Evaluation for Virtual Reality Systems by Murtza, Monroe and Youmans for guidelines.

For further insights into designing user interaction in VR, take the UX Design for Virtual Reality course from the Interaction Design Foundation.

How can designers ensure accessibility in VR experiences?

It is crucial for designers to create inclusive and user-friendly environments in VR experiences. Here are key strategies:

  1. Consider Diverse User Needs: Recognize the spectrum of abilities among users. Consider users with visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive impairments and design VR experiences adaptable to various needs. For example, provide subtitles for auditory content or alternative navigation options for those with limited mobility.

  2. Implement Customizable Interfaces: Allow users to adjust settings like text size, color contrasts, and audio levels. Customizable interfaces enable users to tailor the VR experience to their needs, improving accessibility and comfort.

  3. Avoid Motion-Induced Discomfort: Motion sickness is a common issue in VR. Minimize fast movements and provide options for teleportation or smooth locomotion in virtual environments. Clear and consistent visual cues can help users navigate virtual spaces without discomfort.

  4. Use Clear and Legible Typography: Ensure text is easy to read in VR. Consider font size, contrast, and distance from the user. Place text against backgrounds that don’t hinder readability.

  5. Incorporate Haptic Feedback: Haptic feedback can enhance accessibility by providing tactile responses to actions in VR. This is particularly useful for visually impaired users, as it offers another sensory channel to understand and interact with the virtual environment.

  6. Provide Adequate Training and Instructions: Offer comprehensive tutorials and guidance for navigating and interacting with the VR experience. Clear instructions can make VR more accessible, especially for users who are not familiar with this technology.

  7. Test with Diverse Users: Include users with different abilities to identify and address accessibility issues. Continuous testing and iteration based on diverse user input can significantly enhance accessibility.

  8. Stay Informed on Best Practices: Since the field is rapidly changing, it is vital to stay updated with the latest research and guidelines on VR accessibility to implement the most effective and inclusive design practices.

For example, let users choose if they want to stand or sit, give them the option to select their dominant hand, whether right or left, choose the game difficulty level and include settings for users with disabilities.

For additional insights into designing accessible VR experiences, take the UX Design for Virtual Reality course from Interaction Design Foundation.

What software is best to design VR environments?

Choosing the best software to design VR environments depends on your specific needs and skills. Here are some widely recognized and powerful tools commonly used in the industry:

  1. Unity: Unity is one of the most popular game engines for VR development, known for its versatility and user-friendly interface. It supports various VR platforms and offers a vast library of assets and plugins. Unity is ideal for creating interactive VR experiences and games.

  2. Unreal Engine: Unreal Engine is renowned for its high-fidelity graphics and advanced rendering capabilities. It’s a top choice for creating visually stunning VR environments. Its Blueprint visual scripting system benefits designers without extensive coding experience.

  3. Blender: Blender is a free, open-source 3D creation suite. It’s well-suited for modeling, animating, and rendering 3D scenes for VR. While it has a steep learning curve, it’s a powerful tool for those who master it.

  4. SketchUp: SketchUp is known for its simplicity and ease of use, making it a good option for beginners in 3D modeling. It’s commonly used for architectural and interior design visualizations in VR.

  5. Autodesk Maya: Maya is a robust software for professional 3D modeling, animation, and rendering. It’s suitable for creating detailed and complex VR environments, particularly in the film and video game industry.

  6. Adobe Aero: Adobe Aero focuses on augmented reality (AR) but is also relevant for VR. It allows designers to create interactive experiences with a more straightforward, no-code approach.

  7. A-Frame: For web-based VR experiences, A-Frame is a web framework for building VR experiences that work in a browser. It’s accessible to web developers familiar with HTML and JavaScript.

What are the best practices for testing VR designs?

Testing VR designs is crucial to ensure a high-quality user experience. Here are the best practices to follow:

  1. Iterative Testing: Conduct testing throughout the design process, not just at the end. This allows for early identification and resolution of issues, ensuring a more refined final product.

  2. Diverse User Testing: Include a wide range of users in testing phases to gather varied feedback. Test with users with varying physical abilities and tech familiarity.

  3. Realistic Environment Simulation: Test in environments that closely mimic the intended use case to help you understand how users interact with the VR design in real scenarios.

  4. Focus on User Comfort: Consider factors that affect comfort, such as motion sickness, eye strain, and ergonomics. Ensure that the VR experience is comfortable for extended periods of use.

  5. Performance Testing: Assess the performance of the VR application under different conditions—test for frame rates, load times, and responsiveness to ensure a smooth user experience.

  6. Feedback Mechanisms: Implement effective ways for testers to provide feedback through in-VR tools, questionnaires, or interviews post-testing.

  7. Observation and Data Collection: Use methods like eye-tracking, heat maps, and user behavior logs to gather objective data on how users interact with the VR environment.

  8. Accessibility Testing: Ensure the VR design is accessible to users with disabilities. Test navigational methods, audio descriptions and alternative control schemes.

  9. Technical Testing: Test on various hardware setups to ensure compatibility and optimal performance across different VR systems.

  10. Safety Considerations: Ensure the safety of users during testing, especially in scenarios that involve physical movement.

UXStudio’s blog, VR In UX Research: All You Need To Know About VR User Testing, provides some best practices for user testing in VR. Enroll in the UX Design for Virtual Reality course from the IxDF for more insights into best practices in VR design testing.

How can VR be used for educational purposes?

Virtual Reality (VR) offers transformative possibilities for education, providing immersive and interactive learning experiences that traditional methods cannot. Here are several ways that educators can use VR:

  1. Immersive Learning Environments: VR can transport students to different times and places, providing a vivid and immersive way to learn about history, geography, or science. For example, students can virtually visit ancient civilizations, explore different ecosystems, or travel through the human body.

  2. Hands-On Skill Training: VR is particularly effective for practical training where real-life practice might be risky or impractical. Medical students can practice surgeries, engineering students can interact with virtual machinery, and chemistry students can conduct experiments without the risk of hazardous materials.

  3. Language and Cultural Immersion: VR can simulate environments for language learning, where students can practice in a setting that mimics a foreign country. It also helps in understanding cultural nuances by virtually experiencing different cultures.

  4. Special Education: Educators can tailor VR to suit the needs of students with special needs, providing a controlled environment where they can learn at their own pace without external pressures.

  5. Enhancing Creativity: VR can benefit art and design education, as it offers a new medium for creative expression. Students can create 3D artwork or design structures in a fully immersive space.

  6. Scientific Exploration: In subjects like astronomy or biology, VR allows students to explore otherwise inaccessible environments, such as outer space or microscopic worlds.

  7. Collaborative Learning: VR can support collaborative projects where students in different locations can interact and work together in a virtual space, enhancing teamwork and communication skills.

  8. Gamified Learning: Game-like elements in educational VR experiences can make learning more engaging and fun, increasing motivation and information retention.

  9. Field Trips and Virtual Tours: VR can provide virtual field trips to museums, historical sites, and even different countries, making experiential learning accessible to all students regardless of geographical limitations.

By integrating VR into education, learning can become more engaging, effective, and accessible, providing students with unique experiences that deepen their understanding and enhance their skills.

To learn more, take the course UX Design for Virtual Reality.

What is the role of storytelling in VR design?

Storytelling is pivotal in VR (Virtual Reality) design, significantly enhancing the immersive experience. The power of storytelling in VR lies in its ability to engage users emotionally and cognitively, making the virtual experience more impactful and memorable. Key aspects of storytelling in VR design include:

  1. Immersion and Presence: Storytelling in VR leverages the medium’s immersive nature. It creates a sense of presence, making users feel like they are part of the story, which can lead to a more emotionally engaging and impactful experience than traditional storytelling.

  2. Interactive Narratives: VR allows for interactive and branching narratives where users can influence the story’s outcome. This interactivity gives users a sense of agency, making the story more engaging and personalized.

  3. Sensory Engagement: VR can stimulate multiple senses, including sight, sound, and touch (through haptic feedback). Storytelling that integrates these elements can create a more convincing and absorbing narrative environment.

  4. Emotional Connection: VR stories can evoke strong emotional responses by placing the user within the narrative. This can be particularly effective for educational purposes, empathy training, or raising awareness about social issues.

  5. Spatial Storytelling: Unlike traditional storytelling, VR allows for spatial narratives where the environment plays a crucial role in the story. Designers can use the virtual space to convey mood, reveal story elements, or guide the user’s journey through the narrative.

  6. Temporal Flexibility: VR storytelling can manipulate time in ways that are impossible in real life. Storytellers can convey flashbacks, hypothetical scenarios, or future predictions, enhancing the narrative experience.

  7. Cultural and Historical Exploration: VR can recreate historical or culturally significant environments, allowing users to experience stories in their original context. This can be a powerful tool for education and cultural preservation.

  8. Challenges and Opportunities: Designing narratives for VR presents unique challenges, such as ensuring user comfort, avoiding overstimulation, and narrative pacing. However, these challenges also open up opportunities for innovative storytelling techniques exclusive to VR.

For more insights on the versatile applications of VR, watch Mel Slater’s insightful Master Class Webinar on How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.

How can VR help in empathy and perspective-taking?

Thanks to its immersive nature, virtual Reality (VR) can help foster empathy and perspective-taking. By placing users in environments or situations different from their own, VR can deepen understanding and emotional connection. Here’s how VR aids in empathy and perspective-taking:

  1. Immersive Experiences: VR’s immersive quality allows users to experience life from another person’s perspective. This can be particularly powerful in scenarios that are hard to imagine without direct experience, such as living with a disability or experiencing life in a war-torn country.

  2. Emotional Engagement: The immersive nature of VR generates strong emotional responses. Users are not just observers. They are active participants in the narrative, which can lead to a deeper emotional understanding and connection with the subjects.

  3. Breaking Stereotypes and Prejudices: By experiencing the world from the viewpoint of someone from a different race, gender, or social background, VR can challenge users’ preconceived notions and biases, promoting greater understanding and empathy.

  4. Educational Tool: VR can help educators teach history, social studies, or literature by immersing students in the historical or cultural context of the subject matter, enhancing their understanding and empathy for the people and situations studied.

  5. Training and Development: VR is used in professional settings, such as healthcare or law enforcement, to train individuals in empathy and communication skills. It allows them to experience scenarios from the perspective of patients or individuals from different backgrounds.

  6. Therapeutic Use: In therapy, VR can help individuals understand and empathize with others’ experiences, which can help treat conditions like autism, PTSD, or social anxiety.

  7. Cultural and Global Awareness: VR experiences can transport users to different parts of the world, promoting a deeper understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures and lifestyles.

  8. Storytelling and Art: Artists and storytellers use VR to create powerful narratives that place the audience in the protagonist’s shoes, offering a first-person experience of the story.

VR’s ability to create a sense of presence and immersion makes it a powerful tool for fostering empathy and perspective-taking, providing experiences that are difficult to replicate in any other medium.

Learn more about how you can leverage VR in your work in the UX Design for Virtual Reality course from the Interaction Design Foundation.

Literature on Virtual Reality

Here’s the entire UX literature on Virtual Reality by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Virtual Reality

Take a deep dive into Virtual Reality with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .

Virtual reality is a multidimensional universe that invites you to bring stories to life, transform digital interactions, educate with impact and create user-centric and unforgettable experiences. This course equips you with the skills and knowledge to embrace the possibilities and navigate the challenges of virtual reality.

UX Design for Virtual Reality is taught by UX expert Frank Spillers, CEO and founder of the renowned UX consultancy Experience Dynamics. Frank is an expert in the field of VR and AR, and has 22 years of UX experience with Fortune 500 clients including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP, and Capital One.

In UX Design for Virtual Reality, you’ll learn how to create your own successful VR experience through UX design. Informed by technological developments, UX design principles and VR best practices, explore the entire VR design process, from concept to implementation. Apply your newfound skills and knowledge immediately though practical and enjoyable exercises.  

In lesson 1, you’ll immerse yourself in the origins and future potential of VR and you’ll learn how the core principles of UX design apply to VR. 

In lesson 2, you’ll learn about user research methods, custom-tailored for the intricacies of VR.

In lesson 3, you’ll investigate immersion and presence and explore narrative, motion and sounds as design tools. 

In lesson 4, you’ll delve into interface and interaction design to create your own user-friendly, compelling and comfortable VR experiences.

In lesson 5, you’ll gain insights into prototyping, testing, implementing VR experiences, and conducting thorough evaluations.

After each lesson you’ll have the chance to put what you’ve learned into practice with a practical portfolio exercise. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll have a case study to add to your UX portfolio. This case study will be pivotal in your transition from 2D designer to 3D designer. 

All open-source articles on Virtual Reality

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