The Importance of Detail in Virtual Spaces

The best virtual spaces offer materiality, texture, levels, lighting, colors and more.

This is the latest chapter in my research series on what makes a welcoming social VR experience. Social Virtual Reality platforms are working to generate engaging experiences that draw people in and motivate them to return. It led me to wonder — what are the core elements what make humans feeling comfortable and stimulated and turns them into repeat visitors? I gave demos of social VR platforms to nine experts of spatial & social experience design and then asked them for their impressions. Read the study’s introduction here. You can also read part 2 on Owning the Narrative, part 3 on Who is this Space for? part 4 Place Creates the Rules of Behavior, part 5 Context is Comforting, part 6 New people want to be hosted in Social VR, and part 7, Retail in VR: What Makes a Good Shopping Experience.

In this chapter, I’m going to share a selection of quotes from spatial design experts who explored different social VR worlds. I’m not going to name the exact places because their feedback is easily generalizable to many, many virtual spaces. It’s more important to highlight the language and design principles they call upon than critique specific spaces.

A lack of details detracted from people’s enjoyment

It’s not enough to have the basic building blocks in place. These experts judged locations based on how well the details are executed.

One of the things people talk about in architecture is having unit scale of details. Instead of having a big, blank concrete wall, you have a concrete wall that has little details that you can relate to on a more intimate level. Here you have more texture; the texture of the gravel, the texture of the wood. Even though when you get up close to it it’s still pretty flat — the surface isn’t actually modeled — but it has all of the detail in it even if you aren’t getting the dimensionality of it… It could look like the real world, or completely not like the real world, but either way I want the detail. If there is no detail, it’s not convincing to me.

One architect spent a lot of time dissecting the flooring of another space:

The reflective flooring is jarring because not a lot of hard surfaces that we are accustomed to are so hard and so perfect. The joint lines, the grout lines between the stones are perfectly smooth, you can see in the reflection that there is no deviation. It looks really fake. You don’t have a visceral reaction to it. It doesn’t feel like a real material. Materiality is one of the most important things to make a space feel better. Texture, tactile surfaces. When I look around, the textures used are flat. So it has more of a digital feel to it.

This next quote shows how much the appearance of effortlessness is prized in space creation. And how digital spaces always will have a hard time replicating the effortlessness.

Part of what the hospitality design is about is that you are creating this world but you are trying to have the illusion that it is not made, that it is not created. ‘This hotel just happened to have all of this fabulous vintage furniture.’ There is a lot of hidden artifice. The effortlessness. Part of what is interesting about this by contrast is that it is all artifice. Because of the digitalness of it. It makes the artifice apparent, even though I don’t have a sense of how it’s put together.

This person talks about trying to hide the artifice of spatial design. But digital spaces can’t easily hide that. Another person compared the lack of buildout to a broken link.

Empty stores are not good. To me it seems like it’s website link-ish.

Meaning that if there are details and signifiers are being offered, they should also be functional.

These experts had very high expectations of what these spaces should offer and how they should work.

Show the lines between the real and artificial

One virtual space that received high marks was a scanned version of a museum in the physical world.

This has the quality of a lot of detail. You can see where the technology fails. In this case, it’s interesting to see where the technology successfully reproduces reality and where it doesn’t. It’s almost better than being a perfect reproduction of an actual place. Maybe because it is an artifact of the way it is made. It is the digital equivalent. Which I guess the super flat world does too, but this is more aesthetically pleasing.”

The importance of testing

I’m a big advocate of user testing of VR & AR experiences before they go live. And that’s because the user’s perceptions of details can be quiet different from the creators, or those were are just very familiar with immersive technology. One hospitality expert was surprisingly negative about a location stating:

When I went to explore [the town], there was nothing there. Maybe if it had been more visually appealing it would have been more interesting, but it was gray cinder block and holograms.

However, from my time spent in many different Social VR worlds, what she perceived as lacking detail, I would have rated as above average.

Author’s note: This series has been on hiatus while I was working on another project. My goal is to push out the remaining chapters in the next few weeks. Please leave me a comment here to share your thoughts, or tweet me at @theextendedmind. And if you’d like to hire me for UX testing of your immersive creations, email