A VR Users Experience of VR User Experience

For both consumers and content creators, it is an exciting and also frustrating time to be exploring the world of VR. Whilst there are many new experiences available, things that we take for granted in other mediums can often get in the way.

Useful conventions such as pinch to zoom, navigation bars, hotkeys and tried and tested layouts, for the most part, do not yet exist in this space. This provides a blank canvas for creators to experiment with new ideas for ways of interacting with content and can result in some great ideas and some ideas that sounds great but just don’t work well in practice. I will be going over some examples of common interactions that you might need to provide to a user and my experience with a few ways of achieving them.

Scene and Level selection

This is quite a common one and something that a user is often presented with quite early on in an experience. Fortunately, if a user has entered into your content through a VR system such as SteamVR they will already be familiar with at least basic level selection and this is often good enough for most experiences. This involves presenting the user with a grid of options, ideally each option will be represented visually as either a billboard or a ‘window’ into the scene so that a user can identify the scene at a glance without having to read text, which can be an issue due to pixel densities of current hardware.

SteamVR’s Main Menu

This works quite well and is quite intuitive as most controllers have a built in method of scrolling, it does however have the disadvantage of breaking the user out of the experience as interaction with even a well designed menu can be a little jarring. One of the ways around this is to make your level selection a part of the experience itself. This has been done successfully in my opinion by both The Lab and Job Simulator. In both of these experiences, the level is selected by interacting directly with your environment, for example Job Simulator presents the levels as retro-style game cartridges which you put into a slot and pull a level to load up. This is both satisfying to use and prevents the a jarring break from the experience.

Tool Selection

Unlike scene/level selection, tool selection is something that absolutely must be quick, intuitive and seamless to the user as, depending on the experience, they may have to do this many times and possibly as a matter of urgency. This is a good example where traditional solutions are not feasibly in VR. In the past, hot keys or selection dials have been used which allow for quick and seamless switching of tools however the first is not easily available in the VR space and the second presents some challenges. Having tools or items appear in space in front of the user on a button press, and allowing the user to reach out and grab what they need is a simple solution which works particularly well if there are few numbers of options. Depending on the experience, a ‘floating toolbox’ approach such as that used by Fantastic Contraption is quite intuitive also.

Fantastic Contraptions ‘walking toolbox’

Text Input

Sometimes necessary, always painful has been my experience with text input so far in VR. Credit where credit is due, many developers have tried to come up with different solutions in this space but it is an inherently clumsy thing without a simple typing mechanism. My advice would be to avoid having the user enter text wherever possible as it is quite challenging to do this well and often it is hard to do much better than a basic on-screen keyboard and laser pointer or touchpad based solution. SteamVR’s solution to this is to have each touchpad be responsible for a section of the keyboard and the position of the users thumb on the touchpad when they click dictates the character selected. Still clumsy but fairly intuitive and with practice a user might be able to build up some speed.

SteamVR’s keyboard

Some Principles

So far in my VR experience, three rules of thumb seem to hold true when I think about the best examples of UX design in VR.

  • Favour interaction with the 3d environment over 2d menu’s
  • Favour analogies to real world mechanisms over traditional desktop user experience patterns
  • Favour in-world interactions over controller button presses

Of course these principles are easy enough to say as they are quite general, and developers will have to design interaction modes carefully to suit the individual experience while standards slowly emerge in this interesting space!