Better #UX Design for #VirtualReality

This entry follows up on the talk I delivered during the Virtual Reality Evening organised by Saint Martin’s Institute of Higher Education and Malta’s Google Developers Group. The aim of this session was to share the best practice of UX in VR for the local community after I attended the Daydream talk at the Google IO17 last May and spoke to UX designers who created these concepts.

The slides used during the talk are available on Slideshare and below after the notes. You may find the corresponding material on my resources page.

Why UX for VR?

Just like any other technology, Virtual Reality is only viable and feasible for an organisation if it is used to create meaningful experiences. It can add value to a visit inside a museum, a shop and even remote commerce and gaming. Possibilities are endless since we are in total control of the virtual environment. It therefore follows that we are also responsible for how to design in this environment.

Whenever designing experiences in VR, we should follow the same basic principles that we follow when designing and building other applications. The user will be performing a task and interacting with other entities in a given context.

So what’s the leap?

We are used to reasoning about 2D design on a day to day basis because of our presence in society. Our roles can vary:

  1. Persons coming up with a concept and presenting that concept to a 2D designers that will realise it. This can be a mobile application, website and even a printed brochure or magazine.
  2. The 2D Designers who will need to understand the need of the client and translate the concept into relevant content that will be specifically targeted towards a user group.
  3. Everyone is a User/Consumer of 2D information at the end of the day. We are used to consuming information in the form mentioned above.

Therefore, thinking about scenarios in 2D is easily manageable for us. In the process of doing so, we take the 3rd Dimension for granted. This dimension is therefore the depth factor of objects or devices that are ‘displaying’ the 2D content that I just mentioned.

Intended Viewing Distance

This z-dimension of depth in our real world is the intended viewing distance of devices or objects. We are used to viewing objects from a specific distance. Road signs are designed in a way that make them readable and understandable for people driving vehicles. Content on mobile is designed to allow us to consume it at arm’s length or less. The list follows.

In a 3D world, we’re responsible for this idea of perceiving depth and in a 3D environment, we will be required to design 2D objects that are placed at different depths. The main tip at this point is not to underestimate the effects of depth and its perception.

When I visited Pisa, I was fascinated by the number of tourists posing in many creative ways (some not even adequate to publish) in an effort to interact with the leaning tower of Pisa. I snapped this photo from a different angle to show how the effect of perceiving depth can only work well from an intended viewing distance.

Distance-Independent Millimetre

Angular distance can be tricky when applied to design. Degrees are limited to just 360 and granularity implies using long decimal numbers that are not convenient to work with. Radians allow for more detail but on the other hand the values can end up unrealistically large.

During their Google IO17 talk, the Daydream team at Google proposed the Distance-Independent Millimetre (dmm) that makes our lives much easier. This was inspired by the Device/Density Independent Pixel that abstracts graphical pixels from physical device/screen pixels.

The dmm can be simply explained as a rise of 1mm in every metre. This is an excellent way to translate designs to 3D worlds since it is easily scalable. The simple illustration below shows this principle in practice. It follows that for example 2dmms is 2mm at a length of 2m and so on.

This is a really new concept of reasoning about placing objects in 3D worlds and it would be great if we all share experiences.


Using virtual reality is fun and exciting. This is what many people tell me after they experience it for the first time. When asking more about what is so fun about it people naturally say that it’s all about being immersed in a scene and you can look around to explore it.

Would you imagine consuming information such as books or movies in Virtual Reality?

Most of the current use cases in virtual reality are entertainment apps and are intended for short bursts of use. This allows developers to experiment and include all sort of movement and interaction. But let’s focus on this…would it be so pleasant to use this technology for a long while? It’s rare to find VR apps that are intended to keep the user engaged for a longer period of time. The main reason behind this is the ergonomic factor.

In the slides and resources one may find the templates needed to adequately plan for eye and neck comfort in VR.

Comfort Zones for Eye and Neck ergonomics. Source: Daydream Team

My next talk will be on the 27th July and it will focus on how to include VR in an existing experience. This talk is named Virtual Reality in Heritage since it will show how a UX redesign in a museum made a difference to its visitors.