Star Trek Holodeck
Work, writing

Design Considerations for Virtual Reality

Preamble:
Yes, much hype. Much much hype.
Yes, I’m always skeptical, and I’m assuming that VR headsets (e.g. Oculus) will take a few iterations, and price points to catch on. Now even a few years into it, wearables are still getting mediocre traction. At best, Apple has people wearing them for social status or fashion. Nevertheless, new technology is deserving of design consideration even more than existing, common devices. They need to be nurtured, and “done right” in order to have a longer life ahead.

What follows are a few things I would keep in mind if I found myself in a position to design for Virtual Reality. Perhaps with more exposure to VR, I can add to this list in the future.


Sharing the room
Others that are not wearing the headset have no insight to the VR experience; unlike a TV, which can be a shared experience. Devices will either have to become more affordable so that everyone can wear them at the same time, or the solitary device should provide some external feedback to others in the room; such as an outward-facing display that mirrors a 2D version of the virtual experience, distinct audio signals (for the room, not the wearer), or as some currently offer: an optional feed that displays on a TV/monitor.

Accessories to support and enhance
Accessories can enhance the experience, further immersing you into the virtual reality by giving you a great approximation of bodily control. These can range from the more necessary, to nice additions.

The ability to turn in place with ease (and not falling into real world objects) is probably the most important and can be solved with a basic swivel chair or the more expensive 360° treadmills.

Oculus accessories

In concert with existing wrist wearables, or custom-made wristbands, the VR headset would no longer need to be the main point of interaction (click, tap, or toggle). Using accelerometers and Bluetooth that are already included in any fitness wearable, one could wave an arm in front of them and have the action mimicked in VR. Or similarly, a shake or a tap on the wrist could replace the need to tap a button on the headset for making selections.

Keep things out of frame (move the eye)
The same principle that applies to photography, painting, or any kind of visual medium: you want the eye to move across the canvas. In this case, you want heads to turn. Succeeding at this influence are short films that have a rich and beautiful environment, but also play between primary and secondary subjects. At times, both are not within the same gaze and you must turn to see either subject.

This should be used in moderation however, as you can easily tire a VR participant with too many subjects in different directions, and also risk a poor experience that leaves observers feeling they might have missed out on parts of the story because they were forced to follow one subject while another of equal importance remains out of view.

Sound quality is as important as image quality
A truly immersive experience relies on tricking your senses. A well-crafted story also relies on directed attention. Audio quality aides both of these by bringing the observer into the virtual world with realistic ambient sound, and the ability to subtly distinguish voice will help people grasp if there’s a character standing next to them that they need to turn and face, or if the speech is coming from an omnipresent narrator.

Prompt to enable Do Not Disturb when starting the VR
This is a short one, but nothing ruins a virtual experience like a pesky notification pushing its way into view. Before starting a VR experience, there should be some reminder or prompt to enable Do Not Disturb mode for the phone. More aggressively, VR software could just disable notifications, but I prefer to let users make the choice.

Subtitles should remain fixed, detached from video movement
Another specific point is that layered content, like subtitles, should be fixed to an easily legible portion of the screen. In one demo, they were out of view, below the general plane of vision. Although moving around and exploring the setting is a hallmark of VR, some visual elements should be fixed or represented “out” of the virtual space – another plane, or layer, if you will.

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