Nowlab Workshop: Designing for XR

As virtual and augmented devices become more prevalent, it’s time to move past building niche applications and start designing usable products. And, while delving into this new field can seem overwhelming, much of the current user experience and visual design processes continue to be applicable. A designer can still sketch out a concept, flesh out the details and interactions in a wireframe, and give it a final polish in visual compositions. However, there are some important differences worth noting.

First, the transition from designing for two dimensions to designing for three dimensions parallels the transition from desktop to responsive web of the previous decade. However, instead of designing for a standardized set of inputs (touch, camera, sensors, etc.) with a large variety of outputs (screen sizes), augmented and virtual devices use either a single smartphone screen or a two-screen setup to allow the user to perceive depth. The inputs for these devices can vary wildly, from touchscreens and single buttons to complex controllers and gesture detection.

There is also a slew of new design tools to consider. On the one hand, there are the current popular applications such as Sketch, Photoshop, and even good old paper-and-pencil that can be adapted to create two dimensional representations of 3d content. On the other hand, there are the purpose-built tools for 3d environments: 3d modeling tools like Unity, Unreal Engine, and Maya, as well as virtual reality apps for designing for 3d in 3d like Sketchbox or Tilt Brush.

Next, and perhaps most importantly, are the new ergonomic considerations. Just as wide-spread computer usage led to carpal tunnel and cellphone usage is introducing texter’s thumb and smartphone elbow, augmented and virtual reality devices can lead to fatigue or discomfort if the designer doesn’t consider the ergonomics. For example, whereas today, if the text on a screen is too small, the user can move closer to the screen, in a virtual environment, the user, the screen, and all the space in between is defined by the designer. Therefore, the size of the text and its position relative to the user must be considered to optimize legibility and comfort. Additionally, if the user is using a head-mounted device with two hand-held controllers, fatigue in the head, neck, arms, and possibly legs, will limit the time they feel comfortable interacting with the application.

Finally, there are the new opportunities and challenges for designers. For instance, an augmented reality app should consider the environments in which it’s being used. A virtual reality app should include sound design and animation components. And, advances in hardware and software will bring haptic feedback, eye tracking, and new devices that further blur the line between physical and digital experiences.

So, while the basic user experience and visual design principles have not changed, there are new challenges to overcome.  It is an exciting time to be designing novel apps and experiences on the cutting edge of technological innovation.

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