A conversation on virtual reality: The past, the present, and beyond

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Ahead of UX New Zealand 2016, conference speaker and Senior UX Designer enthusiast Shane Goodwin has a conversation on virtual reality.

Hey.

Oh, hey. Good to see you. How’re things?

Good, pretty good. I hear you’ve got something to say about virtual reality (VR)?

Quite a bit, really. About both virtual reality and augmented reality.

“Augmented” reality (AR) and “virtual” reality? What’s the difference?

Virtual reality is fully immersive, basically a big box on your face and no vision of the world around you. AR (some people use the term mixed reality) lets you see your surrounds, but you have objects placed into the world as well. Usually 3D things, and usually things you can interact with.

It’s worth noting that heads up displays, like windshield displays on high end cars or Google Glass, aren’t augmented reality. What’s displayed isn’t spatially integrated with the world around you; it’s not augmenting or mixing with the real world.

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OK, AR and VR are different. Which one’s going to be the winner then?

It’s going to be both. In the long run, AR probably has wider opportunities — you don’t lose the connection with the world around you. In the short term, VR is a bit easier to work with and the gear is cheaper at the moment. But it’s like asking whether a tablet or a phone is going to “win” — neither will, they’re both useful in different ways.

Isn’t it just a gaming thing? Flying spaceships. Pokemon Go. Stuff like that?

Gaming is definitely where it’s starting, and also movies and the entertainment industry. Thing is, just like other technologies that have developed in the past, it’s not going to stop there.

But they’re still going to be niche...

There will definitely be niche applications. For example, VR lends itself to immersion in worlds and large amounts of information, so for education, training, tourism, visualization and exploration of massive data sets, VR is an ideal medium. AR is more about shared spaces, collaboration and adding extra information to what’s right in front of you. But a lot of people don’t think it’s going to just be niche. The technology is going to become as commonplace as monitors and mobile phones.

My cat reckons VR has been “coming” for years too. What makes you think it’s happening now?

In a nutshell: engagement, and also low(ish) cost. We’ve cracked some pretty difficult technical problems, like refresh rates, 3D rendering capabilities, positional tracking, etc., and that’s why “it’s arrived”. But those are just the enabling things. We’ve reached the point that the sense of being “there” is engaging in itself. We’ve crossed the uncanny valley, and hit the tipping point.

You can see it whenever someone tries VR or AR the first few times — especially the higher end headsets, but even the lower end phone-based setups. Their jaw drops, they hesitantly reach out to try and touch what they can see in front of them. People say things like: “This will change the world!”, “Holy! I’m there, I’m there!”, “But, it’s there, it can’t be there” and “Holy fiddling fairies!” (yes that’s a real quote from a real person, and don’t ask, I don’t know, and I probably don’t want to know). People believe and engage with these digital worlds within seconds, despite a level of natural disbelief in them.

To put it another way, if you were user testing the desirability of a digital product, and you got a reaction like that from almost every test subject, would you think you had something worth investigating further? This is why “it’s arrived”.

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You said cost is pretty low?

Well, lower than it ever has been. There are some pretty low cost entry points like Google Cardboard for $10USD or less, and Samsung Gear VR is $100USD or less. At the high end you have the Oculus Rift and the Vive, which are sub-$1,000USD for first generation hardware. Both of these were sold out for months after their initial release — demand way outstripped supply. There are also plenty of other options at various costs in between. Right now, for the price of a high-end monitor, you can have as many virtual monitors of any size you want.

As usual with anything technological too, the cost is just going to come down. It’s going to become more common, more available.

Any other reasons why you think it’s happening now?

Just boring commercial things, really. Facebook recently spent $2 billion dollars to purchase Oculus to be in the game. Samsung is on track to sell 5 million Gear VRs in 2016. Google’s latest version of Android has specific features and support for VR and AR applications (called Daydream). Apple is buying companies that have been trailblazing in the area left, right and center, and are also recruiting expert after expert. An $800 million capital funding round has gone to a company working on augmented reality (Magic Leap). Basically, lots of smart business and technology people with lots of money all think it’s happening.

Alright, maybe VR is coming, maybe. But anyway, I design and build for the web, not AR or VR things.

First up, hopefully you don’t design for the web. Hopefully, you design for people (pet peeve: nobody designs for anything other than people. It’s always for people). But secondly, it used to be that your designs were intended for large screen desktop computers. Today, you design for computers, mobile phones and tablets. Sure, most of the time you’re favoring one or the other to some degree — generally, you’re at least considering all of them. However tomorrow, consumption of your content and services is also going to occur via virtual interfaces: 3D worlds, virtual objects, floating browser windows, or something.

We aren’t going to get a parallel “VR web” just like we didn’t get a parallel mobile web (remember “m.” sites?). Instead, we tried a few things that turned out to be dead ends, and then came up with responsive design and mobile first as an approach. We adapted and changed our practices, we kept calm and carried on designing for the (people on the) web. This is the same kind of thing, although maybe a bit further reaching.

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So, everything I do is going to have to change?

No, people aren’t going to change, and we’re all about people. We’ll still go out and learn what people want to achieve, what motivates and excites them, find all the things we need to make decent design decisions, and we’ll still user test those decisions. But if we’re working for the web, we’re going to have to think about our design being used in virtual spaces. What that actually means to your site design is something we have to figure out. It’ll be something akin to the responsive design/mobile-first shift that we’ve already been through.

If we’re working on an app, maybe that app will be for a phone, or a tablet, or maybe it’ll be something for virtual environments. And then, who knows what kind of design cues and language will need to be applied? The journey is just starting there. People will try, and fail, and take cues from things like architecture and interior design and gaming, and then learn, and try again.

OK, I’m convinced enough to at least think about it. Now what?

Well, first, get excited! You’re living in the future! It’s cool stuff, and you’re going to get to work with it. You’ll probably be living in it as well.

There’s a UX conference coming up that you should be going to anyway. You should come to that, learn a little bit about AR, VR, and a lot about UX generally. After that, you can start to make your mind up — is VR more real than virtual? Has your cat been right all along? And then let’s talk, and start learning, and start designing for the new real world.

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Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you'd like to hear more about VR, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2016 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 12-14 October, 2016, including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here.

Published on Sep 05, 2016
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