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7 things to know about designing for virtual and augmented reality

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Over the past several years, virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology has proliferated beyond the gaming world and established a home in media, marketing, and education, among other industries.

The rapid growth of this space has led to unforeseen innovation through the creation of immersive experiences that enhance the world around us—or sometimes take us to a different world entirely. That said, these strides have not come without challenges, specifically when it comes to the way in which VR and AR experiences are designed and produced.

We spoke with several experts to uncover a series of best practices to keep in mind before launching virtual and augmented reality projects. Whether you’re a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a designer looking to hone your craft in this space, these tips will help guide you on the path to success.

“People are seeking out experiences—not technologies.”
Designing for VR

Don’t lose sight of your objectives when chasing the next big thing

AR and VR experiences are powerful, but they should tie back to clear-cut brand or business objectives. Before diving in, it’s important to ask yourself why you want to pursue this type of media and what you would like the desired outcome to be. For example, if your goals are mass awareness, VR is likely not a good solution given low adoption rates. For a corporate training program at a technical company, it could be an incredibly powerful way to train a workforce.

Ray Soto, Design Director of Emerging Technology at Gannett, works with editorial teams across the country to bring their reporting to life through interactive storytelling formats. The first thing his team does before embarking on an effort is determine that an immersive experience will bolster or enhance the story. “There must be clear value in producing the content as an immersive experience rather than solely telling it through traditional means,” he said. 

Upon passing that test, Soto says the next step is to determine which specific type of experience is right for the project. AR experiences add a layer onto the existing world, whereas VR experiences transport the user to a different world entirely. Moreover, selecting the right platform (meaning, the devices through which these experiences occur) is hugely important since it’s difficult to optimize across devices and formats. As an example, an experience that’s ripe for Google Cardboard—a $15 device—will not translate to one that’s conducive to an HTC Vive, which markets for $800.

 USA Today’s “Harvest of Change” story chronicled the changes Iowa farmers face with 360 video.

Encourage clients to try before they buy 

One of the biggest challenges inherent in VR and AR design is that most clients have a limited frame of reference when it comes to how these experiences should look or feel. When working in more traditional media formats—print, TV, and even digital—it can be assumed that clients have been interacting with similar content for years. On the other hand, immersive experiences like VR and AR are so new that many people lack the first-hand experience needed to deliver actionable and constructive feedback.

“A critical first step in any project: Encourage clients to get first-hand experience.”

David Title, Chief Engagement Officer at Bravo Media, stresses that encouraging first-hand experience among clients is a critical first step in any project. “The most important element is to facilitate a personal experience,” he said. “Before launching any program, we’ll show clients some similar examples and invite them to our office to try the technologies out for themselves. In these cases, watching videos or reading articles about VR and AR isn’t sufficient.”

Related: Defining humane augmented reality user experiences

Shift your mindset to the world of “first-person design”

In one sense, the design challenges inherent in VR and AR are more philosophical than they are technical. As Title points out, these are the only true first-person media formats that exist, and as such, they should be approached with an entirely different mindset.

“If you consider other media formats—books, plays, shows, etc.—each of those occur as a third-person experience and the creator controls everything that a viewer experiences, hears, and feels,” he said. “On the contrary, in a virtual experience, the viewer is the first person. The creator of the media cannot control him or her—nor should they try to.” 

Image by Sergey Galyonkin. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Image by Sergey Galyonkin. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

This all makes sense given that VR and AR activations are referred to as “experiences” instead of “spots” or “shows.” Immersive experiences are non-linear and non-narrative, which means that creators must follow the rules of what Title calls “first-person design.” 

“First-person design means designing an experience for someone else to have,” Title said. “Of course this means the creator gives up a certain kind of control, but they are doing so in exchange for being able to create an experience that can do what no other platform or media format can do.”

First-person design is important to VR experiences in particular, since the way things look or even sound can affect how the user ultimately feels. The environment should complement the story, and the story—in turn—should complement the environment. 

“The best VR and AR efforts add to or enhance pre-existing behaviors.”

“If something looks or sounds unfamiliar, our brains can throw us out of that immersive experience,” Soto said. “Consider spatial awareness, for example: If the space your experience occupies is too big, the user could get lost. Too small, and you risk creating a claustrophobic environment.”

Mike Dory, Managing Director at Spies & Assassins, the 100-person digital arm at KBS, adds that the best VR and AR efforts add to or enhance pre-existing behaviors. For example, taking an interactive home tour or attending a virtual seminar.”

Do your homework to pick the right partner

One hurdle companies seeking AR and VR production services face is that the newness of the industry makes it difficult to parse the good from the bad. New immersive technologies pop up daily, and even the more “established” players have only been around for a few years. Title recommends focusing on a vendor’s portfolio to determine if their capabilities match the ask.

“Nobody has a ton of work to show yet, but [vendors] should be able to share some sort of proof of concept work that demonstrates their capabilities,” he said. “It’s worth asking to see proof work with elements that are similar to what you’re trying to achieve.”

Layne Harris, VP of Innovation Technology at 360i, adds that clients seeking AR and VR design resources should vet partners for their spatial design skills, just as you would an interior designer. The agency’s latest VR work includes building a vehicle simulator for Toyota that allows teens to experience the risks of distracted driving.

“[With immersive formats,] you have to take in a scene holistically,” he said. “Also, unlike gaming, VR is a slower medium and you want to give your users time to adjust to an environment. Select partners that have experience with 3D sound design, as sound can dramatically improve the sense of immersion.” 

Another consideration is that immersive experiences like VR and AR reflect, and therefore require, a hybrid between design and code. “You should to find a partner that combines great [developers] with great designers,” Gannett’s Soto said. “In the early days of VR, the technological aspect of activations outshined the design and UX side. These days, design is catching up to tech.”

Utilize flexible design talent that can toggle between app and experience design 

One of the clearest challenges content creators face in this space is that there are relatively few parallels between mobile and VR from a design standpoint. Most experienced interactive designers cut their teeth in the “mobile era,” but are quickly finding out that immersive experiences like AR and VR reside in somewhat unchartered waters.

“Immersive experiences require a hybrid between design and code.”

Jordan Gurrieri, Founder and COO of VR/AR app creation studio Blue Label Labs, says that while designers can apply some mobile learnings and best practices to VR, the teams creating these experiences will need to test new avenues to produce effective content. There are essentially 2 layers of design in most of these experience: app design (how to navigate to the experience) and experience design (how to navigate within it).

“Menu and breadcrumb navigation, content libraries, and settings and the like are necessary components of a VR experience,” he said. “What’s tricky is that some are designed as part of the VR experience itself, like we seen with the Google Cardboard demo app, whereas others are kept within more traditional app experiences outside of ‘VR mode.’ Consequently, designers need to hone their skills across both environments.”

Google Cardboard

Photo by othree. CC BY 2.0.

Set realistic timing expectations

The reality of the media and marketing industry is that projects can come up last minute: a late-breaking event sponsorship opportunity, a heavily discounted ad spot during the Super Bowl, or other major event—the list goes on. Anyone who has put in time at an agency or development shop has likely been on a project where the timelines are tight

Given the relative complexity of VR and AR projects, a rushed timeframe can lead to a subpar user experience. Experts recommend kicking these projects off 12 to 16 weeks ahead of the intended launch window as a general rule—although it’s not uncommon to kick off one to 3 months out and make creative concessions to meet a more aggressive deadline.

“AR and VR experiences should tie back to clear-cut brand or business objectives.”

Of course, there are a litany of variables that can impact the project timeline. For example, VR experiences can utilize 3D video capture (live footage shot for that specific project using a special camera) or 3D CG capture (existing “stock” assets that creators can purchase from a library). Live capture is oftentimes costlier and more time-consuming given the time it takes to capture, edit and process.

Beyond the more intricate design and development processes required for immersive experiences, the review process is also quite different for these types of projects compared to those of traditional formats. “Editing and reviewing can be a challenge since the only way for clients to review is through a device,” Bravo Media’s Title said. “One method of expediting this process involves setting up a mirrored version of the system you’re developing on, so you can send updated cuts for clients to review remotely.”

Image by Maurizio Pesce. CC BY 2.0.

Image by Maurizio Pesce. CC BY 2.0.

Creating these virtual review environments is more important when developing for less portable platforms (e.g. Oculus Rift or HTC Vive). When it comes to “mass” platforms, such as Google Cardboard, it’s relatively easy to supply the client with the technology needed to review and provide feedback remotely. Regardless of the platform you’re developing for, user testing should be critical step in the review process.

Iterate, test, learn, and repeat

Bravo Media has been creating immersive experiences for more than decade, with innovative augmented reality campaigns for Kid Cudi and Black Eyed Peas rounding out the shop’s early body of work. Since that time, the ubiquity of smartphones—therefore mobile video technology—has fundamentally changed the landscape, and continues to do so at a rapid pace.

In 2015, Absolut live-streamed a concert from Brooklyn’s trendiest club to thousands of music lovers across the US.

“Everything we’re dealing with is betaware,” Title said. “When it comes to VR and AR, technology is brought to market much faster than it would have years ago. Smaller companies are forcing the issue and pushing bigger players to release technologies that are powerful, but not without significant challenges.”

One way for brands and publishers to dive in without breaking the bank, adds 360i’s Harris, is by building “small, bite-sized experiences” to pilot how consumers respond to the experience before investing in a more fully fledged effort. And as clients are learning, designers and developers of these types of experiences are, too. 

“VR and AR producers should use narrative as their North Star.”

“There is yet to be a solid guide for UX best practices when it comes to VR development, and we are discovering more compelling ways to interact with VR worlds with every build that comes out,” Harris said. “Some things we know for sure, like don’t move your horizon line or you will induce nausea, but how we interact with objects—move around, engage with UI elements—is still in its infancy.”

Though VR and AR design comes with its own unique set of challenges, such as designing for first-person environments and capturing and/or securing 360-degree footage, producers should use narrative as their North Star when it comes to bringing content to life.

“Everything seems to be the year of ‘something’—and we’ve decided that this is the year of VR,” Dory said. “From a [product] launch perspective I don’t disagree, but immersive technology should not be viewed as a panacea for unwanted marketing ideas. People are seeking out experiences—not technologies. It’s all about the narrative.”

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Author

Bobby Gill
Prior to founding Blue Label Labs in 2009, Bobby was a Program Manager at Microsoft within the Servers & Tools division. Together with co-founder Jordan Gurrieri, Bobby co-authored “Appsters: A Beginner’s Guide to App Entrepreneurship.” At Blue Label Labs, Bobby’s role as CTO entails providing strategic and technical oversight for all apps we produce. Bobby graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Mathematics and Computer Science and completed his MBA at Columbia Business School. He loves crepes.

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