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The emerging and evolving UX of virtual reality

by Ryan Carney , 31.03.2016

Virtual reality (VR) has had its ups and downs over the last few decades, but all signs point to 2016 as a watershed year for VR entering the mainstream of consumer technologies, as we highlighted in this year’s Tech Trends 2016. Facebook’s purchase of Oculus will finally bear fruit this year with the release of its first commercial product. Not to be left behind, Samsung, HTC and Google will release (or have already released) new virtual reality products or updates to existing ones. So as virtual reality reaches its pinnacle turning point, how can focusing on the user experience (UX) ensure consumers will embrace and adopt this exciting new technology with ease and enjoyment?

VR from a UX perspective

A major challenge for virtual reality from a UX perspective is how users interact with the technology. The input and interactions of virtual reality differ greatly from nearly every interface to come before it due to the fact that the user cannot see his or her own hands nor an input device (e.g., mouse, keyboard, gamepad, et cetera).

The stakes for getting the UX of VR right are potentially even higher than with a website or mobile app. Any frustrations or difficulties with physically controlling or inputting selections in a virtual reality platform are magnified as the user is operating within an isolated environment and, in extreme cases, could even cause disorientation or motion sickness.

Many manufacturers are designing creative solutions to tackle these problems:

  • Minimal buttons. Depending on the generation, Google Cardboard, whereby users insert their smartphone into a special cardboard holder, features a simple button/lever for making selections; the user presses the button on the side of the headset and a lever then physically taps the smartphone screen. For a virtual reality solution that costs less than $20, this simple method of interaction is quite ingenious. However, while a single button is easy for even the most inexperienced users, the level of interaction afforded by a single button is obviously very limited.
  • Head tracking and fixation. App developers are experimenting with their own input methods to take into account low-cost VR headsets without the input method described above. One VR video player app that I’ve used utilizes head tracking and fixation for controlling playback (that is, the user looks around for the play/pause button and points their head toward it for around five seconds). This is a very passive method of interaction but given that it’s for a video player (by nature, a passive medium), it works in this instance.
  • Multiple controllers. At the higher end of the VR headset spectrum are the Oculus and HTC Vive. The Vive, which offers a more immersive VR experience through the extra processing power of an actual computer and head-tracking via laser sensors, comes with two controllers to track hand movement and allows for multiple types of input. This method of control is more in-line with the stereotypical view of VR where the user is not only immersed in a 3D environment but also able to manipulate objects within that environment. Based on the pre-release reviews, the interactions available with the Vive are unparalleled relative to the other VR platforms on the market (or soon-to-be on the market). So with the Vive, the UX challenges shift from the physical interactions between the user and the controls to optimizing the virtual interactions happening on-screen (which itself is a topic for a different blog post).

User feedback and experiences matter for VR

At this point, most manufacturers are still working out the kinks and refining how their VR products should be controlled. User input is critical throughout the development of these new interaction models to ensure the end product will be successful. What works on one VR platform might not work on another; the wide range of device classes may even demand their own interaction models. The controls and input methods of virtual reality on a smartphone are likely to be very different than that of a virtual reality on a desktop computer.

There is no crystal ball to see what UX practices will work best for virtual reality; however, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that incorporating the feedback and experiences of real users into the development will help to ensure a much more satisfying and enjoyable VR experience and, ultimately, consumer adoption.

Please email me to share your thoughts at ryan.carney@gfk.com (Senior Lead User Experience Specialist at GfK).