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VR and Design: More Than a Daydream

When Jules Verne was writing his novels Eighty Days around the World and Twenty Leagues under the Sea, the titles were enough to inspire awe in his readers. Those feats were impossible at the end of the 19th century. Today, if you have the spirit of the explorer in yourself, only the most extreme challenges are left unconquered — swimming across the Pacific Ocean, sacrificing your life to cross Antarctica. Perhaps that is why the idea of a new , virtual reality, one in which the rules are yet to be invented, is so exciting.

A lot has been said about why it took VR so long to become real, but in the last couple of years, the majority of these challenges have been overcome. No one really doubts Mark Zuckerberg anymore when he declared at MWC 2016: “Pretty soon we’re going to live in a world where everyone has the power to share and experience whole scenes as if you’re just there, right there in person.” With the announcement of Google’s Daydream VR platform, which aims to bring hardware, development tools, and content and developer partners together, any further doubts that this time VR would stick start to resemble climate change skepticism— more personal beliefs than objective arguments.

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The question is not if VR is here. The real question is how it will change the way we live, we communicate, we create. And how can we make sure that while we experience everything VR has to offer, we retain our humanity, our connection with each other, and our ability to combine the digital and the physical to have more meaningful lives? It is these higher-level challenges that are perfectly aligned with the capabilities of outcome-focused designers.

VR is titillating in the same way in which, a taboo is — you know the experience will be unique, possibly unforgettable. Deep down, you also fear that there may be no coming back. You may lose yourself in fantasy, but you will also lose a piece of yourself in the process. The role of design will be to make sure that in the excitement of the new experience, we remain true to what makes us human — our connection with others. That was the impetus for our VR 2020 concept, but there are other angles and opportunity areas that we ought to explore:

1. VR is unchartered, complex territory that demands of us to unlearn some old lessons, invent new ones and, along the way, embrace the unexpected.

In a VR experience, things that we have taken for granted — our own identity, our understanding of time and space, our position in the environment — can suddenly be flipped upside down. While some of the laws of physics still apply (optics), others are often disregarded (gravity). Figuring out how to reconcile the discrete shape of our physical being and our ingrained understanding of what is normal, with the shapelessness of virtual reality often results in a feeling of discomfort (a feeling that you cannot put your finger on, literally). This is a problem we have never experienced before and to solve for it, we have to unlearn a few lessons and be prepared for a lot of trials and errors.

For example, German AR studio Re-flekt worked with Audi to create an expansive VR experience within the confines of a car showroom without “teleporting.” Recognizing that the audience in an Audi showroom will be less tolerant of glitches than the typical gamer or early VR adopter, they experimented with different approaches until they created a method that was not only scalable but comfortable and natural. In the process of testing different solutions, they also discovered that “clipping” or the ability to see through VR objects is something users loved.

That is where the real appeal and the potential for design lies: creating narratives around these never-before-seen scenarios and designing experiences around our brand new super powers

2. VR is driven by content, yet the right content is yet to be invented

As with any new platform, content will be key for consumer adoption. Yet content, and the entire system of tools, infrastructure, even language that describes the process and the experience, need to be reinvented to fit the amorphous VR space.

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On the content creation tool side, companies like Lytro are working on tackling the demand for complex hardware. On the software side, Unity Technologies, is rapidly making VR content creation smooth, easy and efficient. The new affordances of VR give us a unique opportunity to find the right balance between the traditional content tools and the opportunity to rethink existing frameworks. Tools like sound and light that have long been parts of a director’s mood palette are becoming indispensable in steering the user in a multidimensional environment. On the other hand, many of the tools that we have been taking for granted in the design process will fall short as we try to create rich, multidimensional, open-ended VR experiences. Storyboarding may be the perfect example of that shortage as current storyboarding tools fail to address the inherent challenges of VR and do not support the easily preview and manipulate ideas in 3D space. (For a hint on what we are doing in that space, look at the title image of this post).

Studios, large and small, are jumping on board to create VR content. From four-five people shops like Otherworld Interactive to Hollywood bigwigs like Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, content creators rush to be first, betting that there would be enough VR devices on the market. Yet unless they dare to reinvent storytelling, the novelty may wear off fairly quickly. Some content producers argue that VR stories need to be simple to allow viewers to bring their own interpretation to the rich environment. Others use complex and ambiguous terms like spherical storytelling and world-building to differentiate the scale, if not of their work, at least of their ambitions. Yet, despite the big words, the most compelling experience I have had with VR is Tilt Brush, which is as abstract and disconnected from a storyline as only VR can be.

Thinking about how to classify and organize these content categories, how to submerge the user into them and enable the engagement we have learned to take for granted as we binge on online content will be a big opportunity area for design. As would the design and development of the content creation tools themselves. The medium is indeed the message, in the world of VR.

3. VR can change irreversibly the way we communicate, create and live — for the better or for the worse.

The overlap between fans of The Matrix and VR enthusiasts so far has been quite significant. Yet, despite the obvious parallels — existing in a semi-catatonic state, being immersed in a non-existing reality, cables and tubes keeping you within a few feet of a feeding/charging station — there is not a lot of discussion around what some of the potential negative consequences might be and how we should make sure we avoid them. If our Internet and phone addiction is an indicator of our likely behavior, VR can lead to even more dire consequences like deeper isolation and reliance on technology, at the expense of human connection and communication.

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Whether VR will unequivocally make us better human beings, or not, is still to be seen. However, there are certain scenarios and industries, where the technology is making indisputable improvements. VR has been used to effectively treat such serious disorders like clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Google Cardboard Expeditions is bringing the world to kids in schools all over the US in a way that was never possible before. Through AR and VR, we are conquering the unnatural and hostile environment in space (as the photo of astronaut Scott Kelly in his Microsoft HoloLens clearly shows).

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The opportunity for design will be to create experiences and interactions that balance immersion with inclusion, facilitate exploration yet encourage communication, unchain imaginations with the ultimate goal to make not only the virtual reality, but our real one better.

At the inaugural VR/AR Vision Summit in February, the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab talked about how they are using AR and VR to accelerate training, exploration, and research. The lesson they shared with the audience stayed with me: “AR and VR was most effective when it augmented our agency, and built on our humanity.” That is a vision to daydream about.