Physical Design for Spatial Computing

How virtual reality experience and interface design can utilize our existing understanding of the physical world

The typical user’s first spatial computing experience (which for the purposes of this article this will refer to 6DOF VR) is totally unprecedented; spatial computing introduces an extra degree of freedom over the screen based model people are familiar with, with that freedom comes an order of magnitude increase in complexity of possible interactions and modes of consumption.

After graduation from Emily Carr I worked as an industrial designer, and while I loved the work I was doing I found myself drawn to the design of interfaces and experiences for spatial computing; I spent an increasing amount of my time tackling the challenges facing the current iteration of this new paradigm (mostly VR) and one day looked up to find I had become a full time product designer for virtual reality. I work with others to create great spatial computing experiences, Physical Design is the beginning of a unifying and familiar set of principals intended to guide the end user as well as my own process.

Gravity of various strengths holds these elements in place while allowing them to move naturally

Google’s Material Design is described as “guided by print-based design elements — such as typography, grids, space, scale, color, and imagery — to create hierarchy, meaning, and focus that immerse the user in the experience.” The philosophy I call Physical Design introduces cues and behaviour also grounded in our understanding of analog media, and uses real world physical interaction to springboard understanding and engagement in spatial computing experiences. Elements using Physical Design respond using the qualities like gravity, inertia, mass, and momentum which we are familiar with thanks to having spent a lifetime manipulating objects in the physical world.

Process documentation from design and prototyping for TH-er(.com), code for this element written by Colin Northway

This page flips as you imagine a real page would, however while it takes cues from the real world it is virtual, and so is not constrained to being flipped only once, you can navigate the entire article with this single element.

I think using this type of approach there is an important balance between including enough familiar (you could argue skeuomorphic) cues to aid interaction without providing so many that they distract from the users goal or unnecessarily limit what is possible in the experience.

Process documentation from design and prototyping for TH-er(.com)

When determining the best approach to query a point of interest and draw a users eye to where information will be displayed we initially considered returning the element to its starting position using a strong attraction emulating gravity; however users mentioned this was distracting, by warping it in just below its starting position we were able to save time, remove distracting motion, and maintain a sense of continuity in the interaction.

Moving forward into the future I think it is likely that these types of cues will be reduced and possibly entirely eliminated as we establish a common vocabulary for interaction in this space. Mobile design moved from skeuomorphic interfaces to their flat and abstract present day descendants and I look forward to this trend in spatial computing; however for now I think an approach like Physical Design is a solid starting point for connecting users to this new and exciting paradigm, one I believe to be the future of media.