Over the past weekend i took part in the StartApp 24hr VR Hackathon. I’m not going to lie… it was pretty brutal, i’m not sure if i’m cut out for working 24hrs straight anymore but we managed to pull it together and win 3rd place!
The overall challenge was to:
‘re-imagine what daily routines could look like in virtual reality’
Our team, The Magic Carpet App (which was a 4am decision related to a feature we had to cut so ended up being very random), were given the time slot of 9am — 11am. We had to re-imagine a daily routine within that time frame in VR. After some brainstorming with my fellow teammates, we decided to come at it from a different angle and focus on the daily routines of travelers… specifically, the daily routine someone goes through trying to plan out their daily activities whilst on vacation.
A large part of the problem revolved around the challenges of planning for the unknown in a new city and the opportunity costs associated with that process i.e. by choosing to go somewhere means you’re not going somewhere else. We wanted to create a solution that could help a user go through the discovery process with a certain level of context that could help them make better decisions. Some of the examples we can up with were focused around geographical distances between certain points of interest i.e. the number of places you can visit within a certain time frame is impacted by the distance between each location. Someone who is new to a city won’t know where each point of interest is located let along the proximity to one another. These problems played a large role in some of the design decisions we made along the way, i especially wanted to explore what information seemed relevant at the different levels of scale. For example, if you viewed a city from 1000ft what information was relevant to that scale versus viewing a city from 300ft versus viewing a point of interest at the street level.
The other interesting challenge that came out of this experience was around one of the more common challenges with VR, navigation. We played around with some interesting ideas about how a user could get from one scale to another and all agreed that there should be some transition/teleportation however we knew we had to be very conscious of motion sickness as well as being considerate for people who were afraid of heights i.e. if we just launched people into a view where they’re 1000ft over a city i can imagine freak a few people out! In the end, we decided to approach these challenges by placing the city on a table to simulate the idea that it was a model city which you could interact with thereby avoiding the feeling that you were floating or flying above the city. We also decided that the last transition from around the 300ft view to street level view would be a complete transition to avoid the feeling that you could crash into a building or causing motion sickness by moving too fast.
Something that i’ve been meaning to explore but never really found the time or reason to go deep into was UI design within VR, however around 8 hours into the hackathon (8pm) i found a few really interesting videos from Mike Alger who i’ve never heard of before but has done some really interesting work on UI Design in VR. His two most relevant YouTube videos are below, ‘VR Interface Design Manifesto’ and ‘VR Interface Design Pre-Visualization Methods’. I really appreciated his work on determining the optimal distance within VR to place interfaces (this is in ‘VR Interface Design Pre-Visualization Methods’). And of course, Kent’s interviewed him!
After we managed to flush out most of the product design decisions the two Unity developers on our team, Howard and David, plugged in and started working on API integrations and navigation functionality. In the meantime i wanted to try and create a prototype to communicate the overall concept of our approach and highlight some of the design and interaction decisions we made in creating the overall experience. Naturally, i jumped into Keynote to start putting this prototype together because i had a rough idea of what it was going to look like. What was particularly interesting was trying to simulate the virtual reality camera on a static canvas. The only way i could think of was to utilizing a 3D model and play around with scale of objects within the prototype to create some sort of forced depth perception. What work surprisingly well was the 360 image we used to simulate the street view. I think that was partly due to the image size being larger than the canvas so i could move the image left and right to create the impression that the image would go on for the full 360. The other thing i’d never really thought about was how to sketch out VR ‘views’ because i naturally started to draw boxes but then that didn’t really make much sense because that didn’t represent the entire 3D environment. In the end we switched to more of a storyboard approach which worked quite well.
The biggest missed opportunity with this product was not using sound at all… i know, i’ve been kicking myself ever since. It’s funny because i was listening to another one of Kent’s interviews (#423: VR Design Best Practices with Google VR’s Alex Faaborg) where Alex Faaborg was talking about how people coming into VR just forget about sound because it’s not really a typical or mandatory component of web or app design, he said ‘sometimes they just forget’… at which point while listening to the podcast i realized that i had actually forgot about sound and how much of a missed opportunity it was to enhance the different levels of scale i.e. at 1000ft we could have had the wind blowing, at 300ft we could have increased the ambiance of the city and then at the street level view the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood. Just thinking about it now i realize how much more impactful the overall experience could have been!!! Never again… i’ve promised myself that the first thing i’m going to think about before i create a VR experience is sound so i’ll never forget again!
Overall, it was a very interesting experience. I really appreciated the time i got to just go deep into VR within the context of a project. I met some lovely and interesting people who were as equally passionate about VR and it was exciting to see where people took the overall challenge. I can’t wait to start my VR course to go deep into Unity so i can actually start building this stuff for real!!
Here’s the prototype i put together in Keynote: