This Capsule Hotel Shows Us What the Future of Reality Looks Like

Applying the design principles we use today to the creation of virtual worlds tomorrow

The scary and thought-provoking HYPER-REALITY by Keiichi Matsuda

Just admit it. The idea of virtual reality is both cool and absolutely terrifying!

It’s ok! You wouldn’t be the first. If you’re a big lover of science-fiction like me then you would’ve felt both the fascination and fear of such virtual worlds through futuristic dystopias such as those shown in Minority Report and The Matrix.

In this article by Dr. Helen Papagiannis, she takes Spike Jonzes’ film Her as an example of how man and machine will become more deeply immersed, whilst simultaneously having our feet planted in physical reality.

Just consider for a second the addictive power of apps today that utilise AR like PokemonGo (*cough* shameless plug *cough*).

It all makes me feel a little cautious about how my attention (read: eyeballs) is going to be monetised.

Frankly, it all makes me feel a little cautious about how my attention (read: eyeballs) is going to be monetised. I don’t know about you but I’m personally not too interested in a world where I have to pay a premium subscription to have less ads blasted into my surroundings (just as in the Minority Report snippet below).

Minority Report feat. Personalised Advertising of the Future

Thus, in order to prevent these types of worlds from manifesting, the responsibility is going to lie with the designers of these virtual worlds. However, as this piece by Recode notes, there is yet to be a unified grammar and vocabulary for navigating these experiences. And the reality, pardon the pun, is that we’re not quite there yet.

I believe it’s crucial for the designers of tomorrow to really consider how to adapt the collective wisdom of interaction design as it stands today.

This, is what this article is all about.

In this article, we will perform a design review of a low-tech, physical space that exists today.

A space that’s not powered by artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, [insert buzzword here].

None of that.

This space is a Capsule Hotel, in particular a Capsule Hotel called nine hours, or more efficiently, 9h.

A Capsule-What?!?

For those who haven’t heard of a Capsule Hotel, Wikipedia gives us a pretty good definition here:

A capsule hotel (カプセルホテル kapuseru hoteru) is a type of hotel developed in Japan that features a large number of extremely small “rooms” (capsules) intended to provide cheap, basic overnight accommodation for guests who do not require the services offered by more conventional hotels.

Basically, it’s something that exists today but shouldn’t. A hyper-efficient experience that feels a little too sterile and clean. It’s kind of what I imagine a student dormitory to be like if it was the year 2100 and I was on one of Elon Musks’ colonies on Mars.

That, or if you like me, enjoy applying a slightly more cynical view… Just add a tint of futuristic dystopia, a pinch of Soylent and you might extrapolate the future of capsule hotels to be something more like the pods from The Matrix.

Just imagine, for $50/night, you get strapped into the capsule, includes food, bathing and a VR experience that’s out of this world!

Capsule Hotels of Tomorrow?

Ok you get my point.

So whilst, I wouldn’t advocate for the capsule hotel as a model for everyday living (yet), I still felt profoundly moved by the experience.

The reason is because it just felt like the space perfectly, predicted my every need. I flowed frictionlessly through the experience.

That’s why we’re performing a design review of 9h. To better understand what its designers might have been thinking when crafting this seamless experience. In order to achieve this, we will explore 9h’s experience through four key aspects of interaction design:

  1. Understanding the User’s Story
  2. Visibility vs Constraints
  3. Consistency through Affordances
  4. Mapping and Feedback

1. Understanding the User’s Story

When designing for experiences it’s essential for the designer to have a really deep and intimate understanding of the user journey. It was clear that the designers of 9h had this understanding.

You start by asking questions: who is the user, what are they trying to achieve, how are they feeling and perhaps most importantly, what do they need to do that they don’t even know they need to do yet? These are some of the biggest challenges for designers.

Here was my user story:

  • Dani (my partner) and I were flying to Sapporo via Tokyo Narita (NRT).
  • We would arrive at NRT at 10pm, with a connecting flight at 7am the next morning (at another terminal).
  • A hotel in Tokyo would cost us $100 pp (since a friend’s airbed became unavailable last minute) and the trip into Tokyo would be $50 pp.
  • Time-wise, it would take a total of 2hrs round-trip. We get about 6 hrs of sleep and an insane rush the next morning.
We don’t want room service, amazing views, we don’t even want to cuddle. All we want to do is shower, get into something comfy and go to sleep.

So fast-forward to when we arrive. We’re tired after a long flight, we need to change, shower and sleep. Honestly at that point, we don’t want room service, amazing views, we don’t even want to cuddle. All we want to do is shower, get into something comfy and go to sleep.

Hence, the decision to book 9h was born out of pure necessity — it was more cost and time effective than staying anywhere else.

This experience leads me to believe that even as we see more and more examples of “predictive” analytics using “big data”, I can’t help but agree with Tricia Wang in this piece when she says that “thick data” can be equally effective.

After all, a good UX design methodology is a like crystal ball. If you have an intimate understanding of the user’s needs and their journey, it will feel like you’re predicting their needs. That’s exactly how I felt coming out of 9h.

Alas the old adage proves true, know thy user!

2. Visibility vs Constraints

It’s always so easy to point out when you’ve had a bad experience with something. However, it’s so much harder to put in words, when you have a truly great experience. Much like when I saw a friend’s theatre work the other week, there were so many unknown feelings I discovered, but I couldn’t find the words to express how I felt.

In retrospect, I came to realise that with 9h, at every step of the way, I felt like I knew what my goal was, and that was it. No more. No less. Just enough to get the job done.

In interaction design, visibility is all about making things available. After all that which is hidden, isn’t going to be used.

But visibility alone isn’t enough. That’s why we find the Minority Report scene above so scary. It’s because it feels likes AR will have no limits and I’ll be tracked and bombarded by ads trying to sell me something across my complete field of vision. Download AdBlock AR Edition!

Constraints is about tempering that which is available. The designers of the aptly named 9h knew this, as 9h stands for:

9 hours = 1 hour for shower + 7h for sleep +1h for chillaxing.

Such a simple concept.

To make it super visible, they created a really simple user flow that’s provided in the “how-to” section of their website. It goes:

9h’s User Flow Diagram

Once again, so simple. The need for simplicity is born from the extremity of the user’s context. I’ve just got off this plane. I’m bloody tired. My brain is in cognitive overdrive, bombarded with foreign symbols of a different language. And I have a very short amount of time to change, shower and sleep!

Too many things visible at once, will ultimately have the effect of making the important things invisible.

As Daniel Levitin tells us in The Organised Mind, if you throw too many things at us, our millennia-old, biological brains just can’t process it all. Too many things visible at once, will ultimately have the effect of making the important things invisible. That’s why we must build constraints into our designs.

In short, we’re going to have to realise that saying “no” will be more important than ever.

Thanks for saying “No” Steve!

3. Consistency with Affordances

OK so they got the website right. They got us to book and reserve our capsules. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the marketing fluff, the promise. How about the delivery?

9h fulfilled its promise by creating an experience consistent throughout the user journey and reducing cognitive load with affordances.

The 9h user flow diagram, was not just something you saw on the website. It was a repeating motif across all touch points in the capsule experience. From the brochures, all the way to printed decals on the wall.

There was repeated use of the same typeface and iconography (symbols) that inform us of functionality. And finally, in a country that’s relatively closed to foreigners, the use of English through out was a pleasant surprise.

Our ancestors learned to monitor changes in their environment (Is that a lion coming for us that’s causing the erratic movement of grass?), and constantly changing environment fire off alarm bells in our brains.

By contrast, creating a consistent experience through repetition of elements, helps build familiarity and reduce cognitive load. This allows us to familiarise with the new interface in an extremely small amount of time.

Another design technique which accelerates the learning process is the use of affordances.

Affordance are cues (often visual) that inform the user of the object’s function.

Design thinker Don Norman often uses the example of doors to explain affordances. E.g. a door handle gives you something to “pull on”. Whilst a metal panel on the door, gives you something to “push on”.

They’ve even invented a name for doors that you can’t help but push/pull the wrong way. They’re called “Norman Doors!”. Here’s a great piece by Roman Mars (99percentinvisible) and Joe Posner (Vox), that talks all about Norman Doors. It’s super interesting, I promise!

Alas, I digress. Affordances when used right, are consistent with the mental models we already have about the world around us. And as Steve Krug says: “don’t make me think!”.

Below, I’ve showcased some of the really interesting (and subtle!) ways that 9h’s designers used affordances to reduce cognitive load and improve the user experience.

Exhibit A —Slippers that Tell You How to Place Them

The way the slippers have the 9h logo printed, are an affordance of how they should be placed, before entering your capsule. Perfect for a foreigner to conform to the orderly nature of Japanese culture.

Exhibit B —A Plug You Switch On
To insert a plug, you have to physically turn on the switch. This informs you that it is in an on-state the moment you connect it.

Exhibit C — Skeumorphism Is The Future
Even before I arrived at 9h, the user flow diagram gave me an expectation of what to look out for, and a subconscious hint of what the functionality would be. You’ll notice that the icon for “sleep” physically represents what a capsule looks like. Thus, I think that despite recent design trends curtailing skeumorphism, I think it’s here to stay. Skeumorphism bridges the chasm between virtual and physical reality by making the icons as unambiguous as possible.

Skeumorphism bridges the chasm between virtual and physical reality by making the icons as unambiguous as possible.
The icon for sleep skeumorphically represents a capsule

4. Mapping and Feedback

From the above sections, we’ve seen how the hyper-efficient experience of 9h has been crafted using a series of existing interaction design principles that are used today.

The designers crafted an experience designed for frictionless on-boarding. They did this by thinking about visibility and consistency when informing us how 9h works and later on, what something does (affordances). But it’s through mapping and feedback that we are informed of where we are, where we can go next and when we’ve arrived.

It’s through mapping and feedback that we are informed of where we are, where we can go next and when we’ve arrived.

Good mapping is another one of those invisible things. I think we all know what bad mapping feels like, e.g. confusing car parks or light switches that don’t correspond to the where the lights physically are. Good mapping creates a predictable experience and it’s something that 9h does really well.

An example of bad mapping in cook-tops from Don Norman’s — Design of Everyday Things

From the moment you enter the capsule hotel’s dormitories, you’re greeted by a map.

The moment I saw this, I immediately imagined myself wearing some futuristic lenses with a heads-up display, or maybe I was playing a game in virtual reality.

Mapping and Feedback at 9h

The only thing is, this map was not digital. It was physically on the wall.

The first thing you’ll note about this map is that it tells me where I am in the greater user journey by using the same consistent user flow diagram.

Then there’s this orange triangular cursor. The cursor gives me feedback and it tells me where I am. If you look carefully on the map illustration, you can you can see in the image below that I’m behind a wall.

When I peak around to the right of the wall, I see the locker room (as expected).

The locker room

On the floor and walls, there are numbers and repeated symbols that signify where my locker is.

As I walk forward the numbers update, it was like as if my AR goggles were digitally projecting them on the surface of the floor. Just like the act of scrolling down a page, whilst the scrollbar provides feedback moving down on the right-side of the screen. The use of such signifiers on the floors and walls was ubiquitous throughout the 9h experience.

As I approach the next stage of the user flow — showers, I’m greeted by more symbolism. It informs me to take off my shoes (just like placeholder hints and error validation in forms!). And it also tell me that ahead is the bathroom, followed by the showers and that the capsules are just to the right.

The best part? My little triangular cursor has moved!

The cursor has moved!

All these little things, they combine to create a mental model that sticks. It sticks because it’s consistent and you come to trust it (remember our brains don’t like constantly changing environments).

Moreover, through the use of low-tech mapping and constant feedback, 9h gives us a set of guidelines as to how we can create a clear sense of place and context when designing the virtual spaces of the future.

The signage on the floors that provide realtime feedback as the user searches for their capsule.

The Beginning

As a species, we’ve only just begun to explore what the virtual worlds of tomorrow will look and feel like.

Through pop culture, we know what we don’t want the future to be. But thankfully, we don’t need a crystal ball to know what the future looks like.

As designers, we can use great spatial experiences such as the one at 9h, to draw upon lessons we’ve already learnt in interaction design, and apply them when bridging the gap between the physical and the digital worlds.

Personally? I’m optimistic. I look forward to hanging out with my great, great, great grandchildren in a fully immersive virtual retirement home. :)

How about you? Let me know by leaving a comment below or tweeting me @chrisnheu!

Oh and if you think it’s hard designing the human hotels of the future? Try designing the pet hotels of the future. That’s what I do :P

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