How To Improve AR Display Visuals' Effectiveness

How To Improve AR Display Visuals' Effectiveness
November 20, 2016

In the first part of our augmented reality (AR) anti-patterns serieswe took a closer look at why porting computer (both desktop and laptop) applications and operating systems into augmented reality headsets can be more difficult than you think. In this second part, we look at how widely used practices in AR display visualizations fall a bit short of providing a seamless user interface (UI) experience.


AR apps on smartphones have been around since 2008 (well before Pokémon GO popularized AR through today's phones) thanks to Wikitude creating the first AR travel app for Android smartphones. Since then, companies like Yelp and Metro Paris Subway have created AR apps designed to help users explore and navigate their surroundings. Other companies like Crayola have created AR coloring apps to help foster children's creativity. However, one thing that these apps have in common is that their visual display of information tends to be constrained by the size of the phone screen, so digital information overlaid on the real, physical world tends to end up looking something similar to this:

Image above: The Yelp Monocle app, the first AR iPhone app, in action (Parr)


You might be thinking, "Eh, that's not too bad, especially since you can only show so much on the screen." But, if you were to think about it from a user experience perspective, the amount of text and image boxes cluttering the screen is overwhelming and distracts you from being able to focus on what you're looking for. And just because most apps portray information overlays in this manner does not mean it's "best practice".


Keep the Visual Display Clean and Unobtrusive

AR operates on the underlying premise that computing and interaction take place in the real, physical world, so you need to react and relate to the digital information overlaid on your real-world surroundings. But, when there are too many digital objects plastered into our fields of view that follow us around, as seen in the Yelp Monocle app screenshot or in Keichi Matsuda's more extreme example below, users can't help but feel bombarded or oversaturated.


Image below: Scene from Keichi Matsuda's critically-acclaimed short film "Hyper-Reality" (Matsuda)

These kinds of information overlays, while commonly seen in video games and movies (see: Iron Man), are less-than-ideal visualizations of AR displays. For example, digital information following us around – as seen on many heads up display (HUD) visualizations – is an overload of information for users and detracts from the AR experience. Having digital information follow people around would be crucial for specific use cases, such as first responders trying to find people buried under a collapsed building, but an everyday user could find that extra information distracting, cluttering their field of view.


Ideally, digital information overlays should be positioned so that they're not intruding on people's fields of views, and are instead off to the side or even anchored to different parts of the world. This can only be achieved when the boundaries within the display / field of view complement the text, images, and other digital info – as opposed to distracting and confusing users (unless users intentionally want to be distracted and confused while using AR).


How Do You Design a Better Notification System?

Another thing to consider with AR displays is that whenever new information is presented, or if there is something that requires our attention, that information tends to get visualized as pop-ups that jump or slide directly into our fields of view. While pop-ups in an AR display are effective at grabbing our attention, it doesn't require scientific studies to know that pop-up notifications disrupt our productivity, even if we've come to accept them as part of our everyday workflows. So how do we design a better notification system in AR?


One method that comes to mind is to have notifications be color-coded – essentially using different visual cues, e.g., changing color hues, to subtly draw users' attention to the notification. Another method is to have a designated notification area (read: notification inbox) in an AR display where users can access the notifications when they choose to do so. This would enable users to maintain their productivity and concentration.


As AR design guidelines become standardized, designing AR displays and interfaces that are intuitive and tap into the way we understand and interact with the world will become easier. And as AR matures, we're looking forward to working with you on making these interfaces even better. In the next installment of our AR Anti-patterns series, we're going to be continuing our examination of user interface design in AR. In the meantime, we invite you to weigh in by sharing your thoughts on Twitteror Facebook.

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