Here's The UI Metaphor VR Desperately Needs

Here's The UI Metaphor VR Desperately Needs
March 28, 2017

The Macintosh gave us “folders” sorted on a “desktop.” Microsoft introduced the metaphor of “windows” that you could peek through to see information. These skeuomorphic interfaces are sometimes criticized for being tacky, but in early computing they were key in providing what are known as affordances–silent prompts that taught new users where to go and what to do next inside the interface.


Virtual reality doesn’t have such a foundational metaphor at its core to get from one piece of content to another. Instead, a floating menu often just places you into rooms–a living room to watch Netflix, or an art gallery to peruse Google’s digital collection sourced from museums across the world. Once you’re inside it can be confusing, even difficult, to leave.


But what better navigational metaphor could there be for VR’s rooms and worlds than an actual door that you walk through?

It’s an idea demonstrated by, of all things, the manga known as Doraemon. In it, a robotic cat can traverse the world through an “Anywhere Door,” a magic portal masked in the most domestic of gateways. Now that door has been brought to life as a physical affordance within VR, in what looks to be a Doraemon promotional installation called Project I Can, spotted by Road to VR.


Manga? Robotic cats? I know what you’re thinking, but look past that stuff. Watch the clip, and see how people are both shocked at what lies beyond the door, and yet completely accepting of this surreal reality at the same time.


There is shock but no confusion as to what that door means, or that it can be stepped through, or that it will take the user to a new place. Furthermore, you can peek in before committing to traverse to the other side–like looking through the window of a restaurant before sitting down at one of its tables, or scanning through the screenshots of an iOS app before downloading it in the App Store. It’s browsable.

[Still: 876TV/Youtube]

Project I Can isn’t the first group to play with the idea of VR portal doors. Recently, the interactive studio The Ortiz created a physical door filled with a head-tracking LCD screen. It wasn’t in VR, but it was an almost identical concept. It was a physical door, behind which another world was waiting. All you needed to do was step through.


Perhaps a door to VR will be too cheesy after spending five minutes with it. Or worse, a door affordance could become unwieldy the same way folders and desktop metaphors can become labyrinthine on your desktop PC. Those are fair critiques. But right now, every time I load a new VR app, I have no idea what menu system, waiting area, or escape plan is awaiting me this time. But doors? I know pretty well how those work.

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