The architecture of virtual reality

Tyler Hopf

I designed buildings, now I design software. These are some musings on why.

Where do we draw inspiration from for the design of virtual worlds, interfaces and experiences?

In the design of smartphone apps and desktop software we have historically looked to graphic design. With over fifty years of iteration, interaction design on two dimensional screens is just beginning to work well.

Partially rendered image of a Virtual Archive

Some argue that virtual reality will be closer to film and television. Those mediums have taken cues from literature and photography — a combination of storytelling, dialogue and visual framing.

But virtual reality is space! It is depth, it is movement. It is objects not icons, people not pictures.

Where should we look to when designing virtual reality?

Architecture.

Architecture project with no implication of physicality

Architecture is the design of environments, spaces, textures and objects with a front and a back. It is the layout of spaces, the narration of movement, the feeling of light and the interaction with the world around you.

Icons, thumbnails, and scrolling are in the vocabulary of two dimensional interaction design. These rarely apply to the physical world and can be confusing in virtual reality. In virtual reality, symbols become what they are representing, scenes become rooms, and characters become people.

Spatial interface prototype

Architects are already virtual reality designers. In fact, they exclusively work in virtual reality. Up until now, their work has been done without the headset that we now think of as a requisite for virtual reality. However, architects do not build physical spaces — they rarely even touch building material. Instead, they work in imagined spaces, they design on paper and in the computer. They design virtual spaces.

An architect is not trained to build, but instead to design. Their design is in the virtual world where drawings, renderings and models exist solely on the computer but are not physically manifest.

Architectural drawing of Wi-Fi and other invisible fields

There is a distinct separation between design and deployment, a certain hand-off that occurs after the architect designs something and passes it on. Architects are not trained builders, they are not in school laying bricks or pouring concrete. Their design has so far been restricted to cities, buildings and small components.

But if instead of passing their work on to a structural engineer, they pass it on to a software engineer, we can accelerate their impact and power. The constraints are different but many principles are consistent. Architecture can now be manifest as an experience at a speed not previously possible for architects. We can walk through a building hours after it was designed, not years.

Unwrapped 360 rendering of a space that was never meant to be built

To be clear, I’m not talking about virtual reality for architects, but architects for virtual reality. Each medium is unique, and VR will continue to draw from UX, storytelling, graphic design, and more. There is one force that links them all: you. Regardless the medium, it is about understanding and designing for the person. We must design for people, not characters. We must design realities, not virtual realities.

Architecture

Connect with me on Twitter or Linkedin to hear more rambling.

Tyler Hopf

Written by

Creative Director at @IrisVR_Inc & Faculty at SVA: Writing on VR / AR / Architecture / Design

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