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How will VR affect UX?

Virtual reality comes with a new set of expectations from users, and tools with which we can connect them to the medium

Virtual reality comes with a new set of expectations from users, and tools with which we can connect them to the medium


Interfaces will no longer constrain themselves to two-dimensional screens sitting on a desk. The screen appears to disappear with a screen mounted to your head. As you move your head there is new canvas space available all around. The head-mounted display gives a sense of depth and scale, which we can utilise and take advantage of. Instead of a screen in front of us, we can have browsers and apps represented all around us.

Additionally we want to think of how to organise these apps in the space around us. Spatial organisation of our UI components can help a user to remember where they can find things. Or it could degrade into the nightmare desktop we’ve all seen with a massive clutter of icons. But even then, our brains make sense out of that chaos, as long as we’re the ones who created that said chaos.

“Instead of a screen in front of us, we can have browsers and apps represented all around us”

Placing typical UI elements in such an environment can be tricky. It can be hard to work out what is optimal when the sky’s the limit. To get an idea of some factors involved in finding the level, take a look at some research by Mike Alger which is in turn based on useful observations provided by Alex Chu of Samsung. Alger’s research concludes that a measurable area looking as follows is what is optimal for user interface elements.

This conclusion is based on several factors as explained by Mike Alger in his paper. The first is the field of view when a user is looking straight forward. This distance is variable per device, but to give you an idea, the Oculus Rift’s FOV is 94.2°. The second factor is the distance a user can comfortably see. This distance is around 0.5 to 1 meters from the user due to how the eyes try to focus more and strain after this distance. Oculus recently recommended a distance of 0.75 meters to developers. The third factor is the head rotation of a user. Horizontally the comfort zone is about 30° from the centre with a maximum distance of 55° to the side. The fourth is head pitch, or the distance up and down that is comfortable for a user to position their head. Upwards this is comfortable up to 20° with a maximum of 60°. Downwards this is comfortably 12° with a maximum of 40°.

Creating memorable experiences

An interesting side effect of experiencing virtual reality through a head mounted display is that it’s more directly tied in with your memory due to the feeling of being inside a new environment rather than watching it on a screen. Our brains can retain a lot of data that we gather from on-screen reading and watching, but feeling as though you’re a part of it all creates memories of the experience, not just retention of what we learned through reading.
Creating memories and engaging a user on a level where they can almost forget that what they are experiencing is virtual is what we refer to as immersion. Immersion is at the heart of VR applications. Being a core goal of a VR experience, we should try to understand the factors involved and the techniques that are quickly becoming best practices when trying to achieve the creation of an immersive experience.

Use sound to draw attention

Positional audio is a way of seeing with your ears. Ingrained in us from early evolution of having to be aware of predators, our brains have attuned themselves to figuring out exactly where a sound comes from in relation to ourselves. A recognisable sound that is behind you and to your left can quickly trigger not only an image of what made the sound, but we can approximate where that sound came from. It also triggers feelings within us. We might feel a measure of fear or soothing depending on what our brain relates this sound to and how close it is to us. As in real life, so it is in VR. We can use positional audio as cues to gain a user’s attention, or to give them information that is not presented visually. Remembering a time when you were in VR and a sudden loud sound scared the pants off of you can immediately recall a memory of everything else you were experiencing at the time.

Scale can be a powerful tool

Another useful tool is how scale can affect the user. Creating a small model of something like a robot can make the user feel powerful, as though the robot were a cute toy. But scale the robot up to three or four times the size and it’s now far more menacing. Depending on the memory you’re trying to create, scale can be useful in shaping the experience of the user.

Create beautiful scenes

Visually stunning scenery can affect the immersion experience as well. A beautiful sunset, or a star-filled night sky can give the user an environment to which they can relate. Relating to known places and scenes is an effective means of creating memorable experiences. It’s a means of triggering other similar memories and feelings and then building upon those with the direction you are trying to take the user. An immersed user may have been there before, but now there is a new experience to remember.

Make learning memorable

Teaching someone a new and wonderful thing can also be a useful memory trigger. Do you remember where you were when you first learned of HTML, or Photoshop? The knowledge that tends to stick out the most to us can trigger pretty powerful images and the feelings that we memorised in those movements. Heralded by some to be an important catalyst in changing how we learn, VR has the potential to revolutionise education. Indeed we are better able to create memories through the use of VR, and what better memories than those of learning new and interesting things?