Designing for Virtual Reality, Part One

Niko Yaremko
Niko Yaremko
This is the first part in the series dedicated to challenges we face when designing user experience for virtual reality. In this post, we discuss about ‘virtual reality’ itself to layout a foundational approach; in next posts of the series, we’ll apply this principle to UX design.

First and foremost, we need to align on how we define ‘virtual reality’ here: its properties and our expectations of it. There are various perspectives and definitions; for the purpose of this document, we must agree on one.

Therefore, we start with a touch of philosophy.

What is ‘Virtual Reality’?

The word ‘virtual’ originates from the Greeks, where it meant ‘real’ or ‘actual.’ In common, non-technical language, ‘virtual’ refers to something that is almost or nearly as described but not entirely so or according to strict definition. For example, ‘the virtual absence of border controls.’

Centuries later, tech enthusiasts introduced an almost opposite definition: ‘not real, but appearing to be real.’ This is the definition of ‘virtual’ we use most frequently today.

Thus, virtual reality denotes ‘a reality that is not real, but appears to be real.’ The term appears laden with the notion of ‘real.’ Here's how we simplify it here:

Virtual Reality is an immersive environment that people perceive as genuinely real.

In this context, we might label ‘virtual reality’ as the ultimate ‘true reality’ created from person’s perception to support their life experience. In this reality, everything may come true — the way we wish it to be.

Is our ‘real reality’ not ‘true’ enough? Sometimes, it isn’t. Occasionally, we walk down the street feeling disconnected, as though observing ourselves from afar, or perhaps we are daydreaming. Sometimes, we endure a lecture or business meeting, wishing it would end, mentally removing ourselves from experiencing the tedium. There are times we are tormented, unable to escape the pain that confronts us.

In this regard, virtual reality should represent the space where you genuinely exist.

Buddhists often guide us towards being present in the moment, in the physical place we inhabit. At times, the same Buddhists steer us away from the suffering and torment that this place may impose on us. The crucial point is that no one but you holds the reins of your true reality. You are not a captive of the so-called ‘real world’, whose existence is often doubted by Buddhists.

People have been creating their own virtual realities for centuries. Painted cave walls, coloured cathedral windows, the layered sand of Buddhist mandalas, voluminous books of fiction, and cinema screens — these have all been mediums through which virtual reality has lent a helping hand to humanity.

What was missing was interactivity. People immersed themselves in these realities, but the realities of paintings, books, and movies never responded.

Once computers became widespread, video games flourished. They provided various solutions to the problem of interactivity.

Games offered scripted quest lines and puzzles for players to discover and solve, allowing them to enjoy the satisfaction of piecing together the puzzle and being rewarded with victory animations.

They presented sandboxes with a set of rules that enabled players to interact with the game's world in myriad ways: mining minerals, building houses, planting crops, taming animals, protecting fellow villagers from bandits, hunting and killing monsters, and traversing ethereal spaces, all within a single game!

Yesterday: Virtual Reality is Behind the Screens

At some point, someone unknown to us contemplated: if we extract the essence of the ‘game’ from a video game, what remains? It must be the purest form of virtual reality! Let’s isolate that and declare that we finally have it.

That’s how we arrived at Second Life and other ‘virtual reality’ apps. Today we use the term ‘Metaverse’ to describe the elements that make virtual reality possible:

  1. It is a three-dimensional space;
  2. There are other people in that space;
  3. Those people are represented by human-like (or humanoid-like) avatars;
  4. People can interact with each other and with some of the world's objects.
  5. The environment attempts to mimic ‘real reality’ by incorporating some of its features.

Those features comprise:

  1. Physicality: gravity, lighting, spatial audio, impassable obstacles;
  2. Vitals: health, hunger, debilitation;
  3. Economics: virtual currency, property, marketplaces;
  4. Politics: governing institutions, enforced social restrictions.

Yet, observing that already convincing reality through the keyhole of a computer screen is somewhat limiting. We should leap into that digital mirror, much like Alice did in Carroll's tale, fully immersing ourselves in the virtual — true — reality.

Science fiction writers were the first to envision this vivid world of the future, presenting it to us all.

Tomorrow: Virtual Reality is Augmented

In the world of tomorrow, as depicted by science fiction, virtual reality envelops us. We don’t require computer screens to be there. Neither do we need these heavy VR headsets. In a short time, the cumbersome and weighty VR headset will lighten, then it will morph into VR glasses. Eventually, these VR glasses will follow the same path as regular ones, becoming VR contact lenses.

Perhaps at some point on this journey, we will overcome our fear of invasion of our bodies and permit technology to penetrate our brains, establishing a sort of neural link there. Maybe this neural link won’t be invasive but merely electromagnetic. These are details that science fiction need not worry about. Neither should we.

Instead, we need to ponder how we would interact with this 'true virtual reality' in the future. When would we continue to use the same 2D rectangles with buttons — as we still use paper menus in restaurants? When would we create something different?

Which ‘features’ of virtual reality would be personalized (and only visible to one person, like today's text messages), and which would be shared (so everyone could see them, like websites and your Instagram profile photo)?

When faced with this design challenge, the most significant hurdle is the absence of the ‘screen’ — the surface on which all ‘virtual reality’ interfaces now exist. Our instinct might be to recreate such screens, as we are used to designing interfaces for 2D rectangles. Recognizing this, deconstructing it, and finding the right way forward represents the primary design challenge for tomorrow’s virtual reality.

We will discuss this challenge in our next post.

Today: Virtual Reality by Proxy

Today, we don’t have neural links or VR contact lenses. We still have the rectangular screens of our computers and phones, and bulky and heavy headsets that can barely produce high-quality 3D.

Nevertheless, we possess the most powerful tool — our imagination. Imagine that the world of tomorrow is already here, but for some reason, you can't fully immerse yourself in it. Imagine you have a specific disability: for instance, you fear needles and thus will never install either a neural link or contact lenses. You would then have to resort to wearing some sort of headset.

Imagine further that you can't position screens so close to your eyes, and wearing even the lightest headset gives you both a headache and motion sickness (a plight some people regularly endure, so they likely know the feeling). You would probably resort to some sort of rectangular screen set at a comfortable distance.

Once you have completed this exercise, you are prepared to understand the ‘virtual reality of today.’

It is a placeholder, a proxy for tomorrow’s reality. It must be built on the same principles, with the same logic as the future, and then gracefully downgraded to accommodate today's devices.

In designing for today's VR, we shape the experiences of the future, then adapt them to cater to the technical realities of the present.

Niko Yaremko

VP of Product