Lessons I Learned About Designing for VR from Stanford’s VR Lab

According to recent studies, Americans are dedicating more income to experiences. It's no surprise then that businesses and brands are flocking to the hottest new type of experience at the moment–virtual reality. If that's you reading this, make sure you do it right.

From 2013–2015, I worked at Stanford’s Virtual Reality Lab (or VHIL), a social science research lab that focuses on human behavior in virtual environments. As an undergraduate research programmer, I had the privilege of working with PhD students in an environment where hundreds of students tested my creations. In those early days, I observed motion sickness, overstimulation, and plenty of disinterest. It was troubling to see this as a VR enthusiast but an opportunity as a designer to improve.

We are at the tipping point, for which we either reach a critical mass of early adopters...or wait many more years. Creating completely packaged consumer-facing VR products is unchartered territory, but the job of a designer's nonetheless. So, how can we use design to create better VR experiences? Below, I have listed some design principles for the new medium.

If you can’t exceed user expectations, subvert them.

Thanks to some good television and sci-fi, plenty of people already have a rough idea of what to expect in VR. The best possible scenario, of course, is to meet or exceed those expectations. However, this is hard to do with current technology because expectations are so high. Ask a bunch of people what they expect and compile a list. Instead of designing to meet the most difficult expectations — realistic human avatars, untethered movement, eye-tracking — try to subvert them instead. Chances are, your users will be much more delighted because of it.

One of the first important design decisions you will make is the form of the avatar. At the lab, participants had different social and physiological reactions to avatars of different forms. Whether the avatar resembled a human or an abstract character mattered significantly. The uncanny valley applies to VR as much as it does with robots. If you cannot exceed expectations by creating realistic human avatars, then don’t try it. Our participants enjoyed and engaged with avatars that were nothing like they’d ever seen before because they didn't have to think about what felt awkward in the experience.

Rather than let your technology or resources constrain you, think instead of how you might use this to your advantage. The best worlds are often the most clever and simple.

Don't force 2D interfaces onto your user.

During the 2016 presidential debate, AltspaceVR hyped up a special virtual debate event, in which people around the world could come and participate in. I pulled out my Oculus and to my horror, I was in a virtual environment with a giant two-dimensional screen plastered on a wall. If this is what I wanted, I could have just turned on my much higher quality TV in the living room.

Flat interfaces are not only uninspiring in VR but they are also difficult to interact with due to the edges of the interfaces being further from the user. If necessary, curve the screen so that the user doesn't have to awkwardly extend themselves to reach certain parts of the interface. Unity has some great plug-ins that do this automatically for you, with the ability to fine-tune the angle.

Design for "presence".

Presence is the moment technology blends away and the user behaves in a natural way in a virtual environment. One study at VHIL sought to determine what immersive factors increases presence, which in turn, enhances the effectiveness of a mediated experience.

What to avoid:

What to include:

Collect thoughtful feedback on your experiences.

A person’s smile or compliment is not affirmation that your experience was any good. Be thoughtful about collecting feedback from people who experience your world, especially if these people are new to VR and have nothing to compare it to. Usability testing is just as important in VR as any other game, product, or experience!

Think about asking these sorts of questions to your participant…

Try to ask questions that evoke stories, not binary or leading questions that will lead to biased answers.

Explore alternative different methods of navigating a world.

One of the biggest design challenges for VR will be developing novel ways for navigating through the virtual environment. It is tempting to use current 2D interface controllers — game controllers, keyboards, etc —since it already exists. However, the promise of VR is the ability to communicate with computers with interfaces that are more natural to our movement. The human body has evolved for millions of years to understand and respond to a world full of vital data. We need to start creating interfaces that fully take advantage of the ways in which we learn and create, and that begins with our hands.

In one study, we gave participants a third arm that they could control by rotating their wrists. They were challenged with a balloon popping game. Rotating the left hand allowed the hand to move in the x direction and rotating the right hand allowed the hand to move in the y direction. We found that once the participants overcame the learning curve of using the third arm, they were able to remarkably use it to their advantage. Imagine that! We have the ability to learn new limbs when given the chance to, and it’s up to you to make that happen.

Final thoughts on human-centered design for virtual reality.

Virtual reality has the opportunity to engage people in unprecedented ways. It's a blessing to see how strong the VR community has grown over the last few years. Every month, I see new advancements in the field that inches us a little closer to our collective dream of creating something that the whole world loves just as much as we do.

Credit to Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

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