What if there was a way to make it feel like we were all in the same room, no matter where we are?
Prototyping a visual collaboration platform for VR.
People are visual creatures.
We share videos to communicate, we search images to shop, and the camera is becoming the next big operating system.
This trend is shifting the way we work, with the visual becoming increasingly important. Mixed media presentations have become the defacto standard for the way business gets done.
At the same time, more people are working remotely. The workplace is becoming increasingly global.
At the intersection of these two trends are applications that promise to allow us to collaborate remotely — but we all know videoconferencing can be a subpar experience. It never feels like you are sitting in the same room; you are always hindered by the webcam and monitor.
With VR becoming a viable platform, there are suddenly new ways to think about the kind of experiences digital product designers can create and exciting possibilities for new problems to solve.
I decided I wanted to build a next generation visual collaboration tool for VR.
I envisioned building a multiplayer virtual ‘war room’ for teams. I called it Whiteboard.
It would have three parts: a VR platform, a mobile app, and a cloud network to link them together.
A VR software app that enables team members, located anywhere, to feel like they’re sitting in the same room around an infinite whiteboard that they can use to collaborate around images, videos, handwriting, and more.
A mobile app to centralize meeting management and creation: scheduling, file access, review and make notes, playback old meetings.
A cloud infrastructure that leverages machine learning to sync virtual and mobile.
From Concept to Prototype
I gave myself a small timeline to create as detailed a prototype as possible. There were so many questions when I began to visualize the concept, largest being what would the virtual room look like?
I decided to go with a planetarium concept because it allows the user to always be in the middle of the space. This made it easy for the user to be equidistant from everything in the room, and didn’t require them to move around the space. Other teammates are arranged dynamically by the system so the user could see everyone at all times. Each meeting room would have its own external landscape, set by the team.
In this virtual room sat several elements. Furthest from the user, on the wall of the room, is the board.
On the board sits the media — images, videos, websites, and other digital files. Users can ‘grab’ media off the board to move it around, make it bigger or smaller, and organize it on the board in any way they desire.
A user interacts with these media files using a menu UI layer we called Pop Ups. Pop ups are contextual menu’s similar to a right click on a computer desktop. A user points at a piece of media on the board, and places their thumb on the d-pad. A menu pops up with options depending on the type of media it is.
Users pull media off the board and bring it closer. The media slides down entering a module (an app.) which lets the user draw, watch videos, etc with the media directly in front of them.
Finally, there is a layer that is only visible to the user, hosting a global menu (exiting a room, inviting someone, etc.) and a notification layer.
The global menu is how users access administrative tasks: adding media, inviting people, managing room settings. Everything is synced to their mobile device by the cloud. Users have access to their contacts, files, and settings across both platforms via an app.
The global menu interface shows all recent media and websites, from any linked source, when the menu was first opened. The user could easily grab the file and then the menu would slide away so they could place it on the board.
The Avatars also presented another opportunity to make the world more immersive. The eyes track as you look around, blinking randomly. When someone speaks, their mouth moves. I think it is very compelling to leverage the mobile app for character creation, so when you entered VR you could go straight into a meeting with your best foot forward.
I spent several weeks with our small team taking our early 2D concepts, and transforming them into the 3D world. Blank spaces to a real virtual environment.
I strapped on the Vive, and slowly the room appeared in front of me. In all my years of building software, it was one of the most exciting moments I have ever had. Not just because I built something, but because it was the first time I ever built anything digital that felt physical. I could walk around, manipulate media on the board, and even draw. It is still very much a crude experience, but the potential for communication is so apparent even with the basic interactions available.
From a product perspective VR is a fascinating space. There are a lot of interactions that have not been defined. It is creatively endless in the possibilities, and that makes it exciting.
But after the initial excitement, you began to hit the limitations of VR: clunky hardware and buggy, complex software. I can’t tell you how many times I had to restart, troubleshoot, and force quit the system software to get things working. Wires everywhere, drilling holes into walls, moving around furniture: I can’t imagine a regular consumer putting up with the pains of the experience.
From the business perspective, it still feels early. The size of the market remains small, and I think everyone is waiting for that ‘iPhone’ moment that really takes it mainstream.
The big question is how do you make something a user would utilize everyday?
Given the current state of the hardware and software, it is hard to see this used in an office environment as anything more than a gimmick, but I do think that is going to change.
After almost a year, I still feel like I have not broken open VR. I’m sure I am not alone, but I have learned a few things:
- AR is probably a better experience long term for apps in the communication space. Allowing people to stay in their current environment, but still enjoy the value of having an expanded digital workspace is a more balanced experience. The ‘glasses’ for a true AR experience, however, are even further out from reaching consumers.
- I would place a strong bet that using your mobile device synced directly with your wireless VR setup is the ideal experience. Some things are going to always be more natural on your phone when compared to VR: typing, quick responses. Being able to pull the services and data directly from your phone makes syncing effortless.
- The best designers in mobile today can do not only UI/UX but also motion and animation. The next generation designer will need to be able to do all of that in both 2D and 3D. Motion is more important than ever when you have to come up with a physical space to work in. Working in a virtual space, having a strong designer craft the full motion experience helped make a stronger product.
- A lot of design paradigms have become standard, but in VR it is all up for grabs. Designers are still trying to figure out what a menu looks like, how a button should work. Building elegant, simple products on mobile, doesn’t always translate to 3D. It’s literally like going up into space, and working with no gravity. A completely different paradigm.
- The kind of teams that are going to be successful in VR are going to look different than the teams that are successful today. It’s going to take game developers working with app designers working with backend engineers to create the next generation tools for all kinds of mixed reality.