Making a Timeline, VR-style

This year, I decided to make a timeline in virtual reality during my time at the Knight Lab. Here are a few thoughts I had.

Why did you decide on a timeline?

I came into the Knight Lab knowing I wanted to continue my work in virtual reality but not quite sure how to do it. In the fall, I experimented with 360 photos and how to make real things look good in a Google Cardboard. This time around, I wanted to delve into cartoons and animated figures, rather than photos. Donald Trump was also just elected and the women’s march took the US by storm, and I felt a desire to act in some small way to do my part to speak out. So, when brainstorming projects for me to work on, a history of women’s rights in the US concluding with the women’s march seemed fitting.

I decided to do a timeline knowing full well there was no way I would be able to fully encompass everything important that had happened in the 200+ years of history I was trying to tackle. I also knew I had to be careful not just to incorporate white feminism, but under-represented minorities as well. After some research, I decided to go with the following eight events:

  • 1848- The Seneca Falls Convention
  • 1920- The Nineteenth Amendment
  • 1960- First oral contraceptive
  • 1972- Roe v. Wade
  • 1973- Title IX
  • 1991- Hill-Thomas Hearings
  • 2017- Women’s March on Washington

What lessons did you learn?

Looking back on my process, there are a few lessons in the virtual reality space that I want to share with you all:

Placement of the timeline mattered.

The first iteration of the project I had my timeline placed up in the sky, where I thought it would be out of the way but still visible for when people wanted to change scenes. On the web, it looked great. However, once it was on mobile users asked me where the timeline even was, and one commented she had to crane her neck to see it. So, I added an animation that had the timeline start in the center of the screen and move slowly upward so that it was clear where it would be for the rest of the user’s experience in the platform.

People cared about distance.

At first, the timeline dates were evenly spaced throughout the square that was the timeline frame. I hadn’t really thought about it, but during user testing people actively expressed their confusion and dislike that 1972 and 1973 were the same distance apart as 1920 and 1960. Details are important, so I changed the spacing on the frame to be more equivalent to the actual year gaps.

Information should be shared like the user is in a museum exhibit.

I thought a lot about how I wanted to express information beyond just the visual scene itself. Audio or text made the most sense, and I went with audio because it was easier on the user and could convey more information than a few sentences if need be. The audio I originally picked was kind of a summary of the event, something you might read in a textbook or on a website about it. It was kind of boring and had no actual connection to what the viewer was seeing. So, I changed it to be more comparable to what you might hear in an audio tour of a museum exhibit- I directed the user where to look and explained what they were seeing. This went over much better.

Things that are easy in 2D can be aggravatingly difficult in 3D.

All I wanted to do was to make the scene change when the user tapped on one of the years in the timeline. In normal websites, this is a very simple click event handler that doesn’t require much code. However, it is a different story in A-Frame- you can only attach event handlers to certain entities, which makes it much more difficult than originally anticipated. Not only this, but VR is such a new medium that there is very little documentation online to help with a problem. Tl;dr- if you are programming for VR, expect things to take at least twice as long as they normally would in any other medium.

What are some questions to think about?

After dipping my toes into the vast, mysterious ocean that is virtual reality, I have a few questions that I would like to know the answers to before I go any further.

  1. How can we better document virtual reality projects?
  2. What are VR photos and videos best used for, and what are cartoons better suited for?
  3. What is the best way to showcase history through virtual reality?
  4. Could virtual reality be used to replace or augment some museum exhibits?
  5. Where is the most intuitive place for users to look while wearing a VR headset, and what are the most intuitive motions for them?

What about future work?

I’d love to work on more virtual reality projects in the future, now that I’ve experimented both with 360 photos and MagicaVoxel Minecraft-like characters. I like the idea of experimenting with user experiences in different mediums, especially ones that are a little bit surprising (I worked for a summer at Tanvas, a company specializing in haptic-enabled touch screens). After working with a timeline in virtual reality, I’d like to continue exploring better ways to show historical events throughout history using VR, especially with controllers and more complex scenes.

To learn more about the Knight Lab, check out their website!

More about the timeline and my work can be found here.