After taunting us from a distance for so long, virtual reality content has burst onto the scene, almost without warning, leaving an industry of filmmakers, developers, and designers especially scrambling in its wake, all trying to get a handle on a seemingly limitless medium.
As it stands, virtual reality is a novelty of sorts—the stuff of TED Talk fodder and splashy product pitches—to no fault of its own. It’s still early on. Virtual reality is in its gawky adolescent years, waiting for the leading figures in the industry to emerge, find their footing, and start building lasting platforms, products, and experiences within the medium.
Sam Applebee, co-founder of design firm Kickpush, is one of the early players making a push in the virtual realm.
But before the realm of the spectacular can be fully explored, there are some very practical design problems that need to be solved.
Tweet We often say an image is worth a thousand words, but imagine what pure immersion can be worth?— Sam Applebee - Kickpush
From rectangles to a limitless expanse
As in the digital mediums prior, of chief importance is how our brightest design minds will tackle UX and UI. The most awkward hurdle in both cases has been the transition from a very simple shape: the rectangle, to a borderless, limitless expanse without a shape at all.
Centuries ago we decided that our premier means of visual expression would be oil on canvas, and ever since then we’ve had an obsession with the rectangle. Whether painting, photography, film, television, the computer screen, or mobile devices—they’ve all, for one reason or another, been predominantly rectangular.
What’s more interesting, the rectangle seems to have shrunk down to its smallest possible confines—the phone display—right before the majority of our content is poised to explode onto an infinite realm.
One of Kickpush’s earliest projects involved the marriage of digital publications with virtual reporting. One story in particular has a team of broadcasters and cameramen reporting from Iraq with 360 degree cameras, guiding viewers through an on-the-ground experience, narrating the action whirling around them.
Once recorded, Applebee and his team are left with a very practical problem to solve
Tweet The question becomes, how do you make the content that we’ve captured accessible to people? As in, how do you allow people to transition from their mobile app to something they have to slide into a cardboard and put in front of their eyes?— Sam Applebee - Kickpush
"And then, once they’re inside the experience, how do they navigate the content in that virtual environment? How do you go in and out through the virtual architectural layers of the space itself? How do you manage switching between them?”
In short, virtual reality UX and UI design is one of the biggest problems designers are tasked with solving. Often from the ground up.
The ultimate goal is to make an app experience between mobile and virtual platforms a continuous one.
“When you’re virtualizing an app, it has to work the same way in the virtual space, it has to be intuitive like it would be in 2D on your phone, but in this new environment,” says Applebee.
Matt Sundstrom, a human interface designer at Apple wrote about how our limited range of focus is the primary reason that so many companies are applying 2D solutions to a 3D space instead of exploring the space in its entirety.
When you look into a Cardboard or a Gear VR, “A single screen is effectively split into two, dividing the resolution. Your eye actually focuses on the center of this area, a cone-of-focus that quickly fall-off towards blurriness. This makes for a fairly small, fairly low resolution area to work with.”
There are, according to Sundstrom, a handful of design solutions for our limited range of focus, ranging from flat to slightly curved to 360 degree canvas wrapping.
Applebee’s team at Kickpush decided to wrap their 2D experience into a virtual space in a sort of cross shape, in order to mimic our most natural range of movement.
“When we were attempting to transfer our virtual reality content and 2D interfaces into 3D, we did a heap of research. What we learned is that there’s a limited field of view that is actually comfortable for the user (basically up and down and left to right) which reduced the canvas size we’d be dealing with quite a bit.”
Once a canvas size and shape is mapped out in a virtual space and a template is set for future material, the design process becomes much simpler.
Tweet The moment you can wrap your 2D material onto a 3D world, you’re golden, at least for publishing. Basically, if you can use Sketch, you can make an art board, you can put layers onto things, and you also have access to Oculus DK or DK 2, there’s nothing stopping you from going home and trying it.— Sam Applebee - Kickpush
To place VR’s present stage into context, Applebee refers to a time not so far in the rearview.
“Remember when anyone with a business or product suddenly needed to have a native app? Well, if VR does find commercial footing, which it seems to be doing, you’ll not only need a website, but an app as well as a VR app.”
What this means, is that as our devices are piling up, designers are increasingly going to have to think about creating an unified experience between each one if we’d like our digital life to be a pleasant one.
“This continuity, between mobile and virtual experience hasn’t been explored to a high degree yet, so that’s what we’re interested in—being the bridge between traditional mobile UX / UI and VR UX / UI. One experience that feels fluid no matter what device you’re on.”
VR as an architectural playground
Not every element of virtual design is in its adolescent phase.
One of the great strengths of early virtual design is the way in which it allows large companies, including airlines, hotels, and architectural firms to preview how a structure might turn out before it’s built.
“Any project that costs a shit ton of money before you have a handle on how it could materialize is a no-brainer in this field. This is something that was once the domain of animation studios, and now we’re having a migration from that field into VR as a result of the emerging demand in design.”
This reality has been especially fruitful for Jean-Michel Lebeau and his team at Cortex, who recently completed a virtual architecture project for Quebec City International Airport.
“They were spending millions of dollars on renovations, but they couldn’t stamp any of the architectural plans because they couldn’t imagine the actual environment within the plan,” explains Lebeau.
Cortex virtualized the airport’s architectural plan and created a world where stakeholders, board members, and architects could visit the airport without having to build anything. This of course saves the airport hundreds of thousands of dollars and allows them to avoid risky mistakes by providing a clear vision of the project ahead.
Iris VR is another outfit with a similar approach: “We write virtual reality design software so that architects can visualize their data without having to know how to create a VR experience.”
The process is incredibly simple: the architect drags one of their CAD files into the software, the file’s data is read, and a virtual replica of the building is constructed in less than a minute.
The architect is then able to walk through the space, inspect their design, and in Cortex’s case, manipulate the materials used for various surfaces.
What’s more, should someone want to build a house in a large field, but they’re undecided on the exact location within the plot of land, they can actually simulate how the light will fall on and enter their house depending on its coordinates within that field, and you can see this over the course of an accelerated 24 hour period.
Says Iris VR’s Jack Donovan, “As a programmer, I didn’t foresee the ability to cycle through an entire day to be a popular feature. But as I've gotten used to what architects really value in the progam, sunlight is everything.”
This is the power of VR’s immersive qualities: you can design a building, and assume that a window is properly placed, but you’ll never know exactly how effective your design choices are until the building is properly situated in its environment and light has fallen on it in a natural way
Tweet By reading geolocation data, positioning a sun exactly where it would be, and casting shadows just as you would in a real time game engine, you can see exactly where the shadows are going to lie at any minute during the day.— Jack Donovan - Iris VR
If the compression of time in the name of a robust experience wasn’t enough, intelligent elements can be added to the world.
“Do we want smart lightning? Do we want NPCs (virtual people)? A beautiful environment in a virtual space is one thing, but mixing it with proper physics that feel authentic are also important.”
The ways in which Cortex and Iris VR can preview an unfinished structure not only touch on the untapped power of design within a virtual realm, it displays its uncanny ability to stretch time and enhance experiences to a degree not previously thought useful in a practical sense.
“As part of the Quebec airport project - we also did a simulation of the luggage travelling from the check-in to the plane, so we could tell if the pathway the luggage was on is as efficient as it should be."
"When you can actually watch and experience those changes in real time, it affects the design of the structure in a way that a traditional blueprint or data points can’t.”
To put this in perspective, this is probably the first time in history someone has designed a luggage conveyor belt knowing they’d soon travel down it to determine whether they’d made a sound design choice.
This is the nature of the virtual reality design space as it stands right now: trailblazers abound, everyone’s skills scattered across the construction site.
The majority of the key players are learning on the fly, gathering knowledge wherever and whenever they can, and there seems to be a camaraderie in VR design that’s not necessarily present throughout the tech industry.
Applebee’s approach mirrors this sentiment. “The trick is to try to make what we’re doing work on a Samsung VR, a Samsung Gear, or a cardboard, because those are the most accessible units. We want any designer to be able to pick this up. We want this sort of design to be accessible."
"Above all, we’re really excited to make partnerships down the road and combine forces with other VR houses to create new virtual reality applications together and make it obvious to people that they can have a go at this stuff. And hopefully the whole industry will try to get there together.”
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