Augmented and Virtual Reality: Now more about improving User Experience

We cannot eat popcorn wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset – Zaid Mahomedy : ImmersiveAuthority.com

IIn 1995, the cringe worthy Johnny Mnemonic was released where he used a VR headset and gesture monitoring gloves to control the “future internet”. Even though this movie was over 20 years ago, it is only in the past few years we are seeing commercially ready Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies hit the market.

If you watch this clip, you will hopefully notice two aspects. The first is that the technology is clunky. The second is that the predicted user experience (UX) he has is rich (for the decade of movie production): information is available at speed, the gloves are accurate, and the path and usability is seamless. When he moves his hands, the VR3 responds instantaneous. It assists him at every turn. Yet twenty years later, we have not reached this quite yet. Why? Because the focus needs to shift from technology to other aspects to enable this industry to flourish.

1: Technology Moves Aside for User Experience.

A large amount of technology companies efforts in this space in the past two years has been mostly focused at determining can they squeeze enough compute power onto a pair of glasses. Other questions to be answered were around if the battery will last a decent amount of time and will the heat emissions be low enough not to inconvenience the user. Whilst there are still optimizations to be performed, the core of the technology has at least been proven, along with some clever innovations around leveraging smart phones to save on hardware investments.

In the coming years we will see a larger amount of these companies focusing on user experience we have with these technologies – ensuring the interfaces,gesture and motion recognition are close to perfect are high on companies to-do lists. The hardware road-map will ensure they are lighter, more robust and frankly – sexier to wear. Before we discuss other aspects of how improved UX will be the focus of the coming years, its not to stay that technology wont help on this. For example, the evolution of flexible compute paradigms specifically in the nano technology area will assist in building compute into glasses, instead of adding compute retrospectively.

2: Difference in Psychologies

Apart from the technology of VR and AR being quite different under the hood, the psychology of how they are used is also. With AR, we are injecting a digital layer between us and the physical world. With VR, we are immersing ourselves into a digital world. These are very different experiences and the user experience design must have this difference at its core. We must ensure that the layer we design for AR takes characteristics from both our physical environment and our own personas. With VR, its much more emphatic to ensure the person feels comfortable and safe in that world.

3: Interfaces to VR/AR UX

The UX Design of AR and VR technologies and applications will require careful management of multiple input styles. Using wearables, voice recognition, AR and AI, we will start to see seamless blending and integration with how technology interacts with us across various senses. Touch devices are still being used, but they will move aside for voice recognition, movement tracking and even brain waves to be used to control these smart devices. The communication will be much faster and intimate, and will force designers to completely rethink how we interact with these devices.

4: The Role of AI in UX

The UX of these devices will also require more human like interactions, to built trust between the devices and the users in an organic manner. We are seeing this with voice control technology like Siri and Google Home, but they are understanding our voice, with some sample responses. Soon they will learn to evolve their speech.

Artificial intelligence will take hold of the user experience to analyze the reaction to different experiences and then make changes in real time to those assessments. UX will become a much more intuitive and personalized experience in the coming years.

5: Convergence of VR and AR Standards

Already we are seeing a myriad of startups evolving in the space, some focusing on content development in software, some on the actual hardware itself. Some are brave enough to have both on offer. We also have the larger companies creating divisions to provide offerings in this space. Choice is great, but when it becomes painful trying on your fourteenth pair of glasses at your average conference, it is not. When one takes time to observe how companies are beginning to partner up to offer solutions ( a trend extremely common in the IoT industry) it is a small step towards some form of standardization. Excessive choice can be bad from a UX perspective, as with such segregation in initial design makes it harder for app designers to get it right on the hardware.

6: Realistic Market Sensing

At some point, we have to get away from the “Toys” feel for these devices. We put them on for ten minutes in an airport or at an event to get a wow from it. Whilst the applications in the gaming industries are there to be seen, companies are beginning to focus on where else the market will be. Certain devices have flopped in the past two years, and you would wonder why with such strong brands. The first reason was awful UX. The second was the market just was not ready, with a distinct lack of content to make them anyway useful. Just because a few of these devices fail, doesn’t mean the movement stops. (Below info-graphic source is washington.edu)

Consumer and Industrial applications have very different requirements from a market perspective, with content choice and look and feel very important for consumer markets, system performance and governance sitting higher in industrial use cases. With the costs associated with adding these technologies to industrial environments under the microscope, companies must focus strongly on measuring and building the return on investment (ROI) models.

7: Protecting the User and the Experience

With these technologies predicted to get even closer than headsets (smart contact lenses for example -link here), its quite important the UX designers can intrinsically build in comfort and safety into any application. Too many times we have seen people fall through something whilst wearing a headset (more so with VR technologies). And that’s just the physical safety. When the threshold between physical and augmented worlds gets closer and closer (mixed reality), we want to avoid a scenario of interface overkill.

Whilst the past few years may indicate that these technologies are fads, the reality is far from it. They will become part of our social fabric as a new form of mobile technology. Ensuring the users experience with these technologies will be the critical enabler in their success and adoption rate.

Designing for AR and VR entails there be better understanding of a user’s need when it comes to context of use. It’s about building connections between the physical and digital world, requiring an interdisciplinary effort of service design, interaction design and industrial design.

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