Tackling UX challenges in VR

When it comes to VR, we all had our share of fun with Roller coaster stimulations or the ethereal Arctic Journey made available by Google in google cardboard. After all, significant work has been done in the last couple of years in designing environments for virtual reality that allows users to enjoy an immersive experience.

But up until now users were mainly considered as passive observers of the environment and had limited ability to interact and directly manipulate the system.

Looking forward, in order for VR to realize its fullest potential, there is a need to focus on designing interactive 3D virtual environments and while designing interactive interfaces for two dimensional computer settings has been extensively studied and practiced, these principles cannot directly translate to the 3d virtual environment setting.

Quick intro

As a Human Computer Interaction student, I am often interested in exploring human interaction with emerging mediums of technology. Two months back I took up this study to understand through the lens of human factors how people interact in VR particularly using gaze as the primary input modality. This post highlights some of the critical challenges that were identified during the user study and design concepts borne out of the insights.

1. Gaze to both “look at” and “select” information

Gaze controlled systems suffer from what is commonly known as the Midas touch problem wherein the user finds that everywhere he or she looks — voluntarily or involuntarily — a new function is activated. Thus the users ends up with a series of unintentional clicks while all they were trying to do was to read the content on it. Applying Fitt’s law to design the interface, the proposed solution tries to distinguish between when the user is looking for information vs when the user wants to select a target.

According to Fitt’s law, the time required to rapidly move to a target area is a function of the ratio between the distance to the target and the width of the target
Instead of having the entire card clickable, the target size has been reduced and the content is positioned out of natural gaze position away from the target to prevent accidental activation.

2. Quick navigation from one end to the other in such a wide environment

The 360° canvas in VR can be both a blessing and a curse for users considering the limited field of view of humans. The binocular field of view of humans ie the extent of the observable environment at any given time where we are able to perceive things in 3D without rotation the head is about 114°.

Taking this into account, the environment is divided into four zones and the user may choose to move from one zone to another without having to physically rotate their neck.

The zones can be thought of as different windows in computer and how we easily toggle between them to view different information.

3. Ensuring users maintain ergonomic position as they interact within VR

One of the most profound observation from the study was that users would end up turning and twisting their necks during the course of interaction yet never realize their position is unergonomic. While this may not have direct implications, over the course of time, it may result in neck pain. This lack of judgement is in direct relation to the fact that people are also generally poor in predicting the future and particularly falls apart when involved in other tasks. According to the proposed design, a user is prompted to click on the re-center icon if the user spends more than a couple of minutes in a un-ergonomic position.

4. How can other lightweight non command input like gestures be used to enhance interaction?

Without a doubt, gaze controlled interactions are intuitive. However, one should not overlook the challenges associated with it. For eg, introducing dwell time reduces the speed of the interaction while demanding precision from users to select a reduced target like in the first solution may affect the selection efficiency. Augmenting gaze with gestures has the potential to solve many of these challenges while ensuring users have a natural and seamless experience.

What next?!

Listed above are only design concepts and future work will include conducting usability testing with users to get feedback and evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the proposed solutions in achieving their respective goals.

On a concluding note, VR is here to stay and the number of UX challenges for designers in this space is both challenging and exciting. It is also important that while we fall in love with the technology and the endless possibilities it has to offer, we don’t underestimate the human factor challenges that can act as a blocker in realizing them.

Whether it’s a UX challenge that has not been discussed above or you have feedback/thoughts on any of the proposed solutions, I would love to hear from you. Also if you want to learn about the study in details, feel free to drop a comment below. Will be happy to share the report.