WTF Is Phenomenology in VR?

Five things to keep in mind when designing for VR

Full immersion is key to believable VR experiences. There is a lot to learn from the long history of design and architectural theory:

  • Phenomenology is a philosophy that focuses on users’ sensory perception of space and the use of light, space, proportion, material, sound and other sensory manipulations to create unique, memorable experiences.
  • Principles of architectural theory can help you create richer VR experiences. You are designing space for humans. Depth, believability, impact and full immersion is what we’re shooting for. Take advantage of the extensive wealth of knowledge that architects and interior designers have amassed to create rich and meaningful spatial experiences.

You can design better VR experiences if you focus on individuals’ subjective experience and perception of your design.

Similar to “Sense of Place” or “Presence” in VR, the phenomenology of space is an ephemeral concept. Since everyone experiences things differently, their reactions are highly subjective. So how do we design while keeping all of these things in mind?

Focus on users’ awareness and consciousness during the experience you are designing. Can you subtly manipulate the spatial condition of the experience using phenomenological strategies to affect the psychological and physical relationship between users and the space to change the way users feel about the experience or themselves? Now let’s integrate this approach into your design process.

Rethink your design process

As part of your design process, integrate multiple sensory stimuli into the spatial design instead of solely relying on sight to convey meaning. While vision tends to be valued above the other senses, all are necessary to create a real sense of place and an effective, immersive experience.Think about ways to influence memory, senses — including visual, aural, olfactory, tactile, etc., perception of time, territory and intimacy to create a stronger emotional tie between the experience and user. And if you’re thinking I’m suggesting you add smells to your VR experience, I’m not ha. I’m suggesting you consider the idea that these senses play a role (even if subconsciously) in a user’s experience.

“Every touching experience of architecture is multi-sensory; qualities of matter, space and scale are measured equally by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton and muscle.”
— Juhani Pallasmaa

Some methods you can employ to alter users’ experience may include, playing with scale, light, phenomena, mood, performance, time, visibility, absence, ambiguity, shadows, transparency, flexibility, reflections, etc. to create specific atmospheres targeted at a specific user experience.

5 ways to incorporate this into your design process:

  1. Senses Checklist: think about all sensory stimuli for the experience, e.g. visual, aural, olfactory, tactile, etc.
  2. Spatial Considerations: light, texture of materials and objects, proximity and scale interactions, etc.
  3. Make a Script: how do you want people to feel during the experience? Write or storyboard this while considering how you can influence their sense of space and the experience through different phenomenological phenomena (e.g. senses checklist and spatial considerations).
  4. Think about the individual user. How do they perceive the world? Take into account their past, current context, cultural background, etc. Remember that experiences are subjective and based on each individual.
  5. Harness sensory stimuli to create an intuitive experience and provide users with feedback: use this to build instantly perceptible affordances into your design.

Impact on user testing

This approach will change how you approach user interviews and testing. You will want to focus on understanding a person’s reaction to and their perception of the experience. This will require more in depth questioning that will help you and the user to understand how, why and what they experienced. Focus on their perceptions, understanding of situation, perspective, etc. The main goal is to gain a greater understanding of the essence of their experience.

With this kind of approach, you can better understand how users are impacted by the experiences you design: remember to focus on ….

  1. How they interpreted/perceived it
  2. Why they interpreted/perceived it that way
  3. How did they feel and what made them feel that way
  4. How did the experience trigger different senses or emotions

Find out what defines people’s connection with space and what triggers their reaction to it. Designing with these strategies in mind will create more impactful and immersive experiences. And that’s what VR is all about!