If you have watched the Playtest episode of Black Mirror written by Charlie Brooker, you know that in near future AR/VR games will be seamlessly meshed to our surroundings and deep-seated memories to create experiences that can currently only be imagined. This episode was rated as one of the ‘top 5 episodes to watch’ by Forbes, making it obvious that AR/VR technologies are now mainstream. Every VRroom updates on LinkedIn grab the attention of anyone and everyone interested in future of computing and application of these technologies to different human endeavors. Ericsson even named AR/VR as one of the top most consumer trends for 2017.
I have been involved with our AR/VR teams at my day job for a short while now and have been amazed at the skill and discipline this group brought in to create prototypes and implement new ideas for different global companies. During our work, much like in the Playtest episode, we unpacked a lot of deep thinking about how best to organize, conceive new ideas, whom to play with, what to not build, and how to collaborate so that we can create meaningful, engaging and healthy AR/VR experiences for our users. This article distils those findings into 5 key principles.
#1. Building AR/VR Experiences is a Social Sport
Creating kick-ass experiences using AR/VR is not a one person game. Much of the work involved in creating awesome AR/VR experiences involves constant collaboration and communication between people with different skills and diverse experiences. The chances of coming up with a great immersive experience increase when the team is composed of 3D designers, psychologists, researchers, programmers, marketers, program managers, event producers, musicians and obviously users. More diversity in the team in terms of age, gender, nationality, and levels of technology savviness generates more creative ideas and immersive concepts to explore in a relatively short amount of time.
This doesn't mean that companies need to invest in a large team and feel like they have lost control of what is happening in the team, sometimes one person can bring in many different skills that could be used in different phases of building the final product. However, teams should be mindful of the fact that building great AR/VR experiences is a social sport that gets better with diverse influences. Better to collaborate continuously than to disappear in a cave alone.
Recently, the team got involved in building an immersive VR experience for a WWII memorial that attracts up to 1300 tourists each day. Very quickly, we realized the storyline to highlight the tragedy of history demands a mix of engineering, design and production skills. Our team consisted of polymath talent who could play experience designers, narrative designers, 3D artists, developers, music composer, testers and delivery managers. The experience design team focused on building a storyline and sorting through historical content to make the narrative more immersive and relevant while the engineers and 3D artists created the critical components making the story come alive. Continual collaboration between these two groups of people is essential for success.
#2. Diverge before Converging
Anthropological experiments have proven now for a fact that an effective narrative can increase the perceptive value of any given object significantly. Both AR & VR provide novel approaches telling stories of everyday objects: make invisible visible, animate the inanimate and humanize technology in the context of our many journeys. This requires both structured and unstructured exploration of complex concepts and ability to refine those concepts into a holistic experience.
Good AR/VR experience becomes great when the associated storyline positively influences the presence and facilitate seamless integration of virtual content with the real environment. This requires thinking + making + learning (Discover-Define-Design-Deliver) to happen iteratively and continuously before anyone can come out with a successful launch.
In all of our AR/VR development work, the team followed a virtuous circular model (as above). During the Discovery phase, the focus is on divergent activities that suspend us in imaginary situations, let us wander around looking for new linkages between disconnected objects, creating new concepts and stories through such connections and asking open-ended questions to qualify the experience and spur more ideas. Define leads to convergence activities around refining, arranging and selecting from the myriad of generated opportunities while understanding the constraints of time, funding, demand, technological feasibility. Our experience has taught us that is not a stage gate like phenomenon but something that needs to happen seamlessly where we keep on diverging on concepts only to converge on ideas that create excitement.
One of our senior UX experts, wrote recently at length on how best to structure these sessions to get an optimal experience.
#3. Gamification is important - Games are not
Most business gurus will tell you that immersive games will be the biggest area of influence for AR/VR technologies. They believe that gamers across the developed world will buy PC VR head-mounted displays, depth sensing phones, and AR headsets to introduce AR/VR to everyone. This may be true given that young gamers have always been early adopters of new technology. However, what is not being much discussed is the huge impact of AR/VR on other domains, encouraging swaths of investments from beyond gaming companies and exploration of innovative business models beyond selling hardware.
We have been fortunate enough to build few immersive proof of concepts that wowed seasoned executives at forward-looking luxury retailers, museums, and online auctioneers. These business leaders could see the appeal of such technologies beyond plain “marketing spend” and how new concepts can be used to drive customer engagement and accelerate top line growth.
Yes, This happened. No, we were not involved.
Given the multivariate application of AR/VR technologies, we recommend AR/VR teams to not focus just on games development but leverage their deep gaming experience in creating applications for other sectors like education, real estate, retail, travel and hospitality, sports, journalism, construction, mining and more. As our teams work on projects in different domains, we see tremendous opportunity to weave in key aspects of traditional gaming - rich, multilayered storytelling, real-life like avatars, obstacle-reward gamification, and more - to help create seamless experiences that foster customer engagement. So gamification over games is a key principle to remember.
#4. Be Platform Agnostic
Conventional wisdom dictates that a winning platform (say Oculus) will take over the entire market soon and the rest of players will be wiped out (much like what iPhone did for smartphones two years back). We believe that is not the ultimate truth. We think that there will not be a single winner and we will have multiverses of hardware, software, and platforms - each catering to different needs, wants and affordability of the consumer demand. So our AR/VR teams are committed to being platform agnostic. Our hardware spread spans everything from Google Tango to MS Hololens, Leap Motion Controllers and everything in between while our software skills cover Unity 3D engine, Unreal engine, Vuforia, and more.
In all our client meetings, unless there is a specific need, we have been speaking about being cross platform as a way to stay relevant. One of the ways to be agnostic is to not use specific device features for example instead of using Gear VR touchpad for control use “focus to activate”. Sometimes such universal solutions do not work well in ‘live’ situations as targeted user group may be habituated to a particular device and in such cases, we ended up building alternative experiences for a popular set of devices.
One of our teams involved in building a VR experience started with Gear VR, then ported the same to Google Cardboard (both Android and OS) and now figuring out ways to move the same experience to Daydream. Use of Unity3D engine helped us in keeping the porting efforts to a minimum while moving fast on different platforms.
#5. Contribute to the Collective
The web is passe. Mobile is about to get saturated - app economy is getting overwritten by the API economy. The next biggest thing is probably immersive experiences created through AR/VR technologies. 2016-17 for AR/VR is like the early 90s of the Internet.
Chips, headsets, storage, content are still work-in-progress to help usher the new era. As mobile chips start supporting key features like depth sensing, area mapping, and motion detection AR will become mainstream. Dwindling device prices and progressive improvement in usability of headsets will make VR commonplace. So we are at that place in time where the present is changing faster but the future has not arrived yet.
There is a lot of confusion and ambiguity resulting in potential opportunities for tremendous growth. Given this gray zone, we believe that it is more important now than ever NOT only to create software, hardware, systems and "systems of systems" that can ‘talk’ / connect to each other without much hassle but also to start sharing findings, learning, mistakes, and discoveries publicly. Basically, that means committing to creating and nourishing ‘stuff’ that improves the overall ecosystem for hardware developers, software programmers, 3D designers, storytellers, and more.
One of our neuro-researcher designer-programmer recently piloted an emotional analytics platform for VR using off the shelf tools from multiple vendors and we plan to share the end result soon with the bigger community. It will help all to better understand emotional responses during development and testing of VR applications. As responsible technologists, share your wisdom with everyone by contributing to Quora AR/VR channels, attending global events, and engaging with us on social media through blog articles like this. Go Team!
AR/VR presents an incredible opportunity to shape the current and future of human-computer interaction. So far the focus has been only on technology (hardware), however, we believe that to create long lasting and meaningful impact, we have to start focusing on the application of above mentioned five principles to progressive initiatives like Expeditions and more. Without these, we may end up with a wasteland of inexpensive hardware unable to create experiences that bridge the gap between humans and machines.
We are continually learning to get better so looking forward to feedback, suggestions and any general commentary on these principles and what would you do differently.
Written by Anupam Kundu, Polymath: business leader, strategist, innovator, future of work, AR/VR enthusiast, visual thinker and dog lover. Anupam advises, invests, and consults. Currently working for EPAM Systems in Bay Area.