Every day, the majority of us will experience both good and bad User Experience (UX) whether we notice it or not. This can be in websites, phone apps, computer programs, our car radio and so on. All digital devices we use have a UX of some kind and when done well, can go completely unnoticed as the ultimate goal of a successful UX is to allow the user to complete their task as easily and enjoyably as possible.
When looking at UX in Virtual Reality (VR), this becomes hugely magnified; We’re no longer talking about a touchscreen phone in our hands or a program on our computer screen. VR headsets are devices which completely engulf each of our senses, and if the UX isn’t done well it can lead to not only an incredibly clunky experience, but one that leads in a lot of cases to severe motion sickness. For VR to move forward and become a technology adopted by the mainstream market its essential to overcome these obstacles, could you imagine the smartphone being as successful if it made 50% of all users feel incredibly ill every time they used one?
It’s all in the hardware though right?
Wrong… well mostly. Its true that the quality of the VR device being used plays a part in creating a successful UX. For example, when compared to lower end headsets such as Google Cardboard, the HTC Vive has higher resolution lenses and motion controllers, which both contribute to reducing motion sickness and increasing the user’s immersion in the environment they find themselves in.
As UX developers and designers, we’re always going to be somewhat limited by the technology available to us. Its the way we utilise what we have available that will define the quality of the UX.
So what can I do?
There are countless methods for creating a pleasant UX in VR so I’ll go through just a few key aspects to begin with (I’ll no doubt cover some more in the future).
Keep your framerate up
This has been covered a great deal by a number of sources so I won’t go into too much depth on this. The key takeaway here is that if your framerate drops below a certain threshold (90fps for the Rift and Vive, 60fps for the PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR), the lag can cause severe motion sickness in most users. In the VR community framerate is of such huge importance that Chris Norden, a senior staff engineer on the PlayStation VR team even said “You cannot drop below 60 fps. Period. Ever.”, and any games that do won’t be certified for release on PlayStation VR.
Make full use of the peripherals available
With new VR headsets have come a plethora of motion controllers, including but not limited to the Vive’s motion controllers, Leap Motion, Oculus Touch (admittedly as yet unlaunched) and many more.
To properly engage a user in a VR experience, its not enough just to stick a headset on them and give them the same old control methods we’ve been using for sit-down, screen based experiences.
Motion controllers can allow users to pick up, point at, hold and touch objects in a virtual environment in a life-like manner. This coupled with the use of 3D audio to create ambient environmental sounds can instantly transform an experience from feeling gameified and distant to being fully immersive.
Here at TruVision when we began creating VR experiences for the Oculus Rift DK2 we originally used an Xbox controller for navigation in a very similar fashion to many traditional console games but quickly discovered through user testing that our target audience who weren’t avid gamers weren’t familiar with the controls. They often found the volume of available buttons confusing and couldn’t get their heads around the dual analog stick movement system. Once the Rift CV1 and Vive were released we started using the Oculus remote and Vive motion controllers respectively, employing a simpler point and shoot method for teleportation, replacing the free movement which is also commonly acknowledged to cause motion sickness. Though this method does slightly reduce the freedom of the user to move around the space, the simplicity of the system makes it easy for anyone to understand and use straight out of the box.
Create intuitive user interfaces (UIs)
With VR being such a new experience for many people, including the wide variety of new controllers, it can quite quickly become difficult and confusing to navigate your way through a VR experience. I myself still get a little confused using the SteamVR menu and have lost count of the amount of games and demos I’ve tried where I end up stood thinking ‘What am I supposed to do?’. With this in mind we need to ensure that when developing UIs in our experiences, we think from the user’s point of view. As we’ve spent time crafting the UI ourselves we understand exactly how it works, but we have to ask ourselves ‘will the user actually know how to use this?’.
To help our users there are a variety of different methods we can use such as a 3D Heads Up Display (HUD) or placing interactive sprites throughout the environement which can be grabbed or pressed using a motion controller. The most common method though is currently to use a menu level (such as in Oculus Home or Steam VR) with buttons that can be pointed at and selected using a motion controller
Having experimented with a number of different UI options including 3D widgets (which can be seen in the image below, left), we created an all-in-one system which runs on a virtual tablet mounted to the Vive’s motion controller (and the Oculus Touch when we get our hands on it!). This has allowed us to create a consistent interface always at the user’s fingertips, offering guidance on how to interact with the environment without being overly intrusive.
Why is this so important?
As a UX designer or developer who cares about the work they do, from an altruistic point of view, we should always be trying to create the best possible experience for our users – its what we do. However from the point of view of a professional in the VR industry there’s another very good reason as to why this is of paramount importance.
Currently the VR industry is still very fresh as a mainstream technology, many people are still trying and discovering the delights of VR for the very first time. These people’s opinion of the tech is directly linked to the quality of the experience they have. This means that a VR experience with a poorly crafted UX can leave the user feeling at best unimpressed and at worst physically sick.
For us to drive the VR industry forward, we must strive to create the best experiences possible, showing people the true capability of VR to fully transport the user to another world.