Why Virtual Reality Matters

For many, thinking about VR requires a paradigm shift from VR being only a subset of gaming.

Practical VR Application

During a recent meetup in San Francisco, I ran across James Blaha, founder of Vivid Vision, a VR startup. James suffers from a vision disorder known as Strabismus, commonly known as Lazy Eye. The condition is caused by abnormal visual development early in life. It leads to loss of depth perception as eye strength become more and more asymmetrical.

Vivid Vision works by increasing the signal (through color and objects) to the weaker eye and decreasing the signal in the stronger eye, allowing the weaker eye to gain strength.

The State of VR

The popularity of the technology is exploding, and companies the likes of Google, HTC, and Facebook are investing time and resources into experimenting with how far they can go in this new digital frontier.

Overall the consensus is that VR is here to stay and it’s for the masses. Courtesy Business Insider

Learning From the Past

But let’s step back. I find that often the best way to talk about the future is by talking about the past, so let’s start there. In 1977 Apple Computers released the first consumer microcomputer, the Apple II. At first these personal computers were seen as mostly a gimmick; we hadn’t figured out what to do with the technology, and the majority of people buying the machines were game players and hobbyists.

VisiCalc is now known as a “killer app”, or an application that proves the core value of some larger technology. VisiCalc showed that the computer could be a useful tool.

Exploring VR’s Potential

The computing age launched us into the world of screens that we live in today and our ability to more deeply interface with computing technologies. Now with VR, we ourselves are the interface into those worlds, and with that ability comes fuller immersion (deep mental involvement) and the feeling of presence (the sense as if you exist in another space). These can be quite powerful tools.

Designing For Virtual Reality

Play in the Technology

If you haven’t had a chance to experience modern VR, you should really start there. Top tier VR hardware, or Head Mounted Displays (HMDs), like Facebook’s recently acquired Oculus Rift and HTC’s VIVE, provide the fullest experiences. These top tier experiences come at a cost: you’ll need a pricey HMD and a powerful PC to run them.

From least expensive to most: Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive

Read the Research

VR, while being seen as brand new, is actually having a resurgence. Initial VR technology has been around since the 1960s. It’s also been studied extensively in places like the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Lab and Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Extend What You Know

At it’s core, the principles of Human Computer Interaction are consistent across technologies. Sure, not everything you know for screen design will translate 1:1, but exploration is key part of a designer’s process. Take what you know of interaction design, human centered design, and user experience and see what holds up and what needs more thought.

Use the Tools of the Trade

Start experimenting right away. 3D engines like Unity or web libraries like three.js are a core part of VR development and available for free. If you want to do anything interactive, you’ll have to play around with code to get it done, or work with a developer who knows a language like C#. 3D modeling software is the new Sketch or Photoshop. Look at industry standard tools like 3D Studio Max (AutoDesk, $180 monthly) or powerful open source projects like Blender (Blender Foundation, Free).

What the Future Holds

The industry as a whole is young and we’re still learning. We can’t even imagine what the true potential of VR could look like. We’re still creating the patterns and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And that’s what I find so exciting about the space.

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