Design Prototyping in Virtual Reality

August 18, 2016 in Notes from the Field
Kent Vasko II

Virtual reality (VR)—that technology associated with escapism and tech geeks—has hit another peak in popularity. As consultants and technologists, we wanted to find out how the latest in VR fits in the current world and how it might solve people’s problems. Some of us here have used and developed VR experiences. They’re meant to enable people to interact with an entirely new world built from someone’s imagination, or the known world from a different perspective (e.g., Rome in the time of Caesar). There are ways VR is used that are relevant to many people’s needs and wants: training/education, entertainment, art, therapy, and the design of physical spaces. We help our clients solve design challenges in these areas all the time, but how might VR help us in solving these problems?

VR as a Prototyping Tool

We often prototype environments out of foam core to give a rough impression of a space, since fully constructing a test environment can be costly, time consuming, and often not possible. Creating a virtual version of the environment allows people to explore the space without the cost and time of construction while providing something higher fidelity than a foam core version. Interactions can be provided to enable live manipulation of the virtual environment too. With such a capacity for quick prototyping and iteration, VR seems like an amazing tool that all designers and developers should use, right?

Well, VR does come with downsides. A notable one is that it usually isolates a few of our senses, leading to a sense of detachment from the experience. This is often the reason VR skeptics argue against VR’s “readiness.” However, we think that, despite any shortcomings, understanding and embracing its limitations can make it a useful prototyping tool.

Less Talking, More Testing

Even with past VR experiences, we decided to put our money where our mouth was to test our thoughts on the latest virtual reality technology, so we ordered an HTC Vive. This product of HTC and Valve uses a head mounted display (HMD) to track a user’s movements to maneuver them in a virtual space.

The HTC Vive uses a head mounted display, hand-help controllers, and base stations to track motion from any angle and translate it into a virtual space. Source:

In the past, unintuitive setups and lack of ergonomically designed hardware plagued VR systems, presenting big barriers to entry. Despite some little hiccups (e.g., graphics driver pains, error codes unintelligible to humans), the graphical tutorials and improved design of the hardware helped lower these hurdles. With our Vive setup and a few VR experiences installed, MAYAns around the office with varying levels of curiosity and skepticism stopped in to try our new toy… I mean, new interactive system.

Sensory Isolation, Mastery, and Discovery

There is something about covering the eyes and ears that makes people reluctant. Most of our participants became hesitant when those senses were cut off from the real world. Separating the senses initially disoriented people and made a few feel unsafe. The Vive’s tutorial did a great job of gradually introducing people to VR in a way that helped ease one’s mind. The system also reminded people of limitations by showing them a grid of the established physical boundaries in each experience. Despite the fact that such notifications can intrude on the experience, VR scenarios need to reassure people that they are safe while their senses are split between worlds.

Understanding Virtual Movement

Once comfortable with the sensory isolation, users were able to really engage with VR, discovering their physical movement was directly mapped to their movement in the virtual experience. The visuals and sounds immersed users in the environment, which encouraged them to embrace the experiences and test the limits of the virtual space.

With participants exploring more, we noticed they would occasionally feel unexpectedly nauseous or disoriented. Having experienced this frequently while developing for VR in graduate school, I thought, “Oh, it must be typical VR sickness,” but the normal culprits like drop in frame rate and high visual complexity were not rearing their ugly heads. Then, Andrew, one of our engineers, exclaimed, “Riding this elevator feels terrible!”. That’s when we realized, the experience was moving the person in the virtual world while the person was stationary. Eureka!

When a person’s movement was directly mapped to movement in the virtual world, they experienced no side effects. On the other hand, when they experienced virtual movement with no physical movement (no input), it caused disorientation and visually-induced motion sickness. We tested this a bit more with other participants and other experiences and found it to be consistent. However, in one game the person would virtually teleport while staying in the same physical location, and nobody became nauseous from it. That’s when our co-worker, Kelly, suggested it was like an Uncanny Valley for moving somebody in a virtual world. The more perceived motion agrees with actual motion and the expectation of it, the less disoriented one feels. This type of motion sickness can be reduced by letting the player have control over their movement, even if that control is pulling a trigger to teleport.

Visually-induced motion sickness is a well-known side effect of VR. The much improved motion tracking allows us to create experiences that match a person’s sense of motion to digital visuals. This means we can avoid VR sickness as long as we design experiences that keep the visuals in sync with a user’s motion.

When perceived motion agrees with actual motion, it creates a more enjoyable experience for the user.

Prototyping Potential

At MAYA, we frequently use prototypes to test ideas and learn more about users, so we decided to explore how VR was already being used as prototyping tool. The IKEA VR Experience allowed users to get a hint of prototyping an environment in the virtual space. Besides performing basic interactions in a given environment—walking around the space, opening drawers, frying Swedish meatballs—one could swap the design of the cabinets and counter tops in the kitchen. Other environments and interactions drew out more ideas: training simulators could take advantage of the significantly improved motion tracking, and remote collaboration could bring physically distant teammates together with VR spaces—where you could write ideas on virtual walls, save the fruits of the session, and reload them at anytime.

The IKEA VR Experience is a great example of how VR is being used to prototype environments.

But What About Augmented Reality?

As excited as some were about their VR experiences, many kept thinking about connecting the virtual world with the physical, like augmented reality (AR). The Vive’s tracking system captures movement so well, that John, our VP of Strategy, wondered if the system could be extended to track people indoors and provide directions via displays or on an AR interface to improve indoor wayfinding. This sparked a conversation about the differences between the applicability of VR and AR to problem-solving. VR isolates and immerses the user into a separate world while AR extends the real world experience. While we think VR is a powerful prototyping tool, AR seems to be a better solution to a wider range of problems.

What’s Next?

We did some testing, came up with ideas, and discovered issues to keep in mind when designing for VR. We plan to build upon our ideas and create experiences to show how this tool can be used in designing environments and collaborating remotely. Stay tuned.

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