6 key design considerations in starting a virtual reality project

Rethinking the design process for VR

Last week, I began a 10 week intensive course in Design for Virtual Reality at Academy Xi, and so far am really looking forward to the rest of the course — what most energizes me most is the potential of evolving and re-imagining the skills I have built over my time as a motion designer into a medium with the immersive power of VR, all of which starts with rethinking the way I approach the design process.

In our second class, working in small groups we were tasked with translating the traditional Real-Time Strategy (think Age of Empires, Warcraft) into a HTC Vive specific VR experience. With only twenty minutes to come up with our ideas, I launched into sketching up 16x9 frames as if to start mocking up some ideas in storyboard format. Straight away it hit me that this was on a whole new level from the way of approaching design for screen media that I was programmed to doing on an everyday basis.

Where I would usually be thinking about the look and feel of a scene on a screen, VR transcends above the pure aesthetics and requires a level of design thinking that encompasses visual, UX, interaction and sound design, much like that of a game designer but with the additional understanding of user psychology and interaction in an immersive environment.

I now had to extend my design thinking capacities from visual design and across other faculties— spatial perception, sound, touch, ergonomics... the list goes on. To be honest I wasn’t too sure where to start give the overwhelming amount of factors to take into consideration in the twenty minutes, however it was an eye-opening exercise.

At the end of the twenty minutes, my group member and I came up with some ideas that we thought were pretty neat:

  • Taking a literal stance on ‘god-view’, the user would be floating on a cloud above the world. To move the cloud around over the world they would stand on large raised buttons arranged in a directional pad — to stop they would step back into the center position
  • They would have a tactical belt around their waist to cycle through different tools at their disposal — for example, one tool was binoculars that when selected you would hold up to your eyes for a closer view of the world below, another was a flashlight that would be used to attract the attention of a group of characters to a particular area.

However as we were presenting, our instructor Daniel Sim Lind soon revealed how some of our ideas, although good in theory, would not necessarily translate as practical in the world of VR. For example, the tactical belt being around the waist would interfere with vision when looking downwards — a more practical alternative may be a backpack approach where the user actions as if pulling a backpack from their shoulders.

At a masterclass in Human Centered Design for VR hosted by Mark Pesce that I recently attended, the key lesson I took away was to always keep in mind that people have a broad spectrum of capacities and experiences. With a human-centered perspective in mind, I reflected back on our class exercise and how I would tackle it differently next time and six key considerations emerged:

1. Constraints

Understanding the constraints is first key as it will dictate not only the style, but the level of interaction the user has in the world. For example:

  • User constraints: Who is the experience being targeted at? For example, if it’s for wide accessibility, then a head-in-a-jar VR experience like Daydream or Gear VR may be more feasible than a high-end system like the Vive or Rift. Remember to understand the body and that no two bodies are the same — how will this impact designing the experience? Older users of less physical capacity may mean placing time duration constraints on the experience to avoid physical exhaustion. An experience targeted at young gamers that are accustomed to fast movement and locomotion on the other hand may allow for less conservative constraints.
  • Hardware constraints: What are the technical limitations that the platform will impose on the experience? How can these limitations be embraced before design starts rather than nasty surprises later down the track? For example, does the success of my design rest on having access to hand controllers, room scale tracking and a high-end gaming computer?
  • Graphics constraints: What are the current limitations of the gaming engine, and how will this affect the style? There’s no point spending days working up look development styleframes in a 3D package like Cinema 4D only to find that there’s no practical way of translating that look into a gaming engine.
  • Physical constraints: What are the physical limitations of the space size, and how will this translate into the virtual world? Where will the user be wearing the headset — in a controlled environment, or on a bus or plane? Will the VR experience be designed for an exhibition space where room area is abundant, or to the confines of a small office?

2. Scale & Space

  • What is the scale of the world? Is it infinite or confined? Is it harnessing the power of the medium?
The IKEA VR experience allows users to interact with the experience at different heights.
  • What is my scale in the world, and how will it impact the user’s experience? Feelings of enclosed space may induce claustophobia, or conversely agoraphobia in large spaces.
  • How close am I to the objects in the world? Around 20 metres is the limit to stereoscopic separation, meaning that parallax will be lost past this point. Contrastly, 0.5 metres becomes straining on the eyes due to constraints of the hardware’s fixed depth of field.
  • In a room scale experience, how can I elegantly make the most of the constraints of the room space? For example, in The Lab’s Longbow the user is positioned on the top of a castle turret — a clever design decision which translates the physical restrictions of the small room space into an elegant design solution, without simply displaying chaperone bounding-box lines in the middle of an open space.
The Lab’s Longbow — HTC Vive

2. Interaction

  • What tools are at the user’s disposal to interact with their environment?
  • What is the tolerance of these tools? For example painting/spraying has a higher falloff and is a much more natural way of interaction in arc movements, rather than a precise tool like a laser pointer that has low tolerance and higher jitter.
  • How does the system account for both left and right hand dominant users?
  • What affordances can be implemented through use of signifiers to imply interaction? For example, how do they know they have a backpack on in the first place? In the Longbow example, how do they know that the fire behind them can be interacted with?
  • How can the viewer be guided through cues to interact with the environment? For example, light cues to divert attention, audio cues to indicate action. VR is a young medium and doesn’t have the luxury of learned mental models for interaction, so directing the viewer without being too overt (eg text based tutorials) is key.
  • How does the user interact with the system (in other words, what is the UI)? 2D UI design principles need to be re-imagined and cannot simply be translated into VR. Mike Alger has an excellent video of interface design techniques here.
Image credit: Mike Alger in VR Interface Design Pre-visualisation methods
  • How does the system provide feedback of interaction occuring? Going back to the Longbow example, the hand controller vibrates when the bow is drawn back, creating the sensation of force and feedback to the user that the arrow is ready to be fired.
  • How can the user leave their mark in the virtual world? Tilt Brush’s success owes to the user’s ability to inflict change in the virtual world in creative and imaginative ways.
Tilt Brush by Google

4. Navigation

  • Free movement: The user has the ability to move around the environment. If so, how? Consider the speed of movement as this may introduce nausea.
  • Controlled movement: The user is moved through the experience, in an ‘on-rails’ experience (for example, arcade shooters like Time Crisis) where the ability to move the camera is taken away from the user. Consider that this may introduce perception-proprioception conflict (also known as simulator sickness) in a VR environment.
  • Teleportation: The user uses their hand controller (or gaze activated) to travel between teleportation points. Looking back at our class exercise, the ability to teleport between different clouds positioned at different coordinates in X, Y and Z to move around the space would have been a more practical method of locomotion.
Image credit: VR/AR Summit
  • Experiment and test! In a presentation as part of Vision Summit 2016, Diego Montoya and Daniel Sproll explain how they experimented with different ways of moving the user around a car within the limited confines of the room space. To do this they tried multiple techniques including rapidly shifting the virtual floor space and various types of movement gain. In the end after multiple rounds of user testing, they settled on a basic Rectangular gain multiplier (image above) which allowed the user to walk around the car when in the ‘gain zone’, and enter an exploratory safe zone towards the center of the rectangular floor area. Check out the full presentation here. One key take away from the end of the presentation:

“Navigation can be unrealistic, but not incoherent”

5. Spatial audio

  • How can spatial audio be utilized to enhance immersion, as well as acting as an attention or action cue? Going back to the class exercise, if the characters were setting fire to a building to your left you would hear fire sound effects coming from that region.

6. Health & safety

After ideation, ask if the proposed solutions address the key principle of HCD — am I designing ergonomically with a broad audience and range of body capacities? Some health and safety considerations to mitigate include:

  • Neck and back strain — extended periods of tilting places great forces on the neck, which may be exacerbated by the additional headset weight.
  • Eye strain
  • Potential trip hazards (HMD cables, real world objects)
  • Simulator sickness

Although my journey in VR design is still in early days, these were the key points I took away from our initial design exercise when applying to the principles of HCD. Of course this is just a brief list that I’ve put together from my initial observations in approaching the design process in attempt to give structure to the brainstorming process, and all are topics in of themselves. Another thing to note — this list focuses on the ideation stage of the design process and does not take into account the vital earlier stages of the design process of empathizing and researching, nor testing and iteration which are key to any successful HCD experience.

I’ll aim to come back and revise these points as the course progresses and as my journey in VR design continues!

“Bodies have limits. They have physical limits, they have endurance limits, they have mental limits, and we all get away with violating those limits in the short term… You always pay a price for that violation…”

Mark Pesce

Kelsey Shanahan is Co-founder and Digital Innovation & Design Consultant at Studio Hi in Sydney. Studio Hi is a design-led innovation and digital transformation consultancy, using human-centered design practices to enable businesses to thrive in digital innovation with the agility they need to move like startups.

Product Strategist & Designer / Co-Founder @ Hidden Innovation / Dad