VR for business: How Fidelity Labs designs for emerging technologies

4 min read
Claire Karjalainen
  •  Sep 21, 2017
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Imagine you want to know how your financial investments are performing. Instead of logging into a dashboard or running reports, you strap on a virtual reality headset and enter a world where anything is possible.

Maybe you can build a virtual “city” from your stocks and watch it grow. Maybe you can walk around inside a 3-dimensional graph of your investments. Maybe you enter a virtual bank and interact with your advisor without ever leaving your home.

Related: 7 things to know about designing for virtual and augmented reality

All this used to be the realm of science fiction, but increasingly, businesses are experimenting with the possibilities of virtual reality. At Fidelity Labs, the Emerging Technology team sees virtual reality as a way to improve customer experiences and change the way Fidelity educates customers.

VR design in the financial industry—the data advantage

Vice President of Product Management Adam Schouela leads Fidelity Labs’ Emerging Technology team, and he’s watched VR come a long way since 2014 when the team first created “StockCity,” the experience above where users could build a city from their investment portfolio.

The big advantage of VR for business? Creating a better way to understand and manipulate massive amounts of data, says Schouela.

“Think about a typical graph,” he says. “You would never want to put more than, say, 5 variables on that graph, because the information becomes too much to process.”

Humans, however, are wired to process far more than 5 inputs at a time in our environments. By creating a VR space, designers can take advantage of all the ways we process cuesTwitter Logo in our world.

“For example,” says Schouela, “If you’re walking in the woods, out of the corner of your eye, you might see a leaf move 100 yards away. It’s not so much that you were looking to see the leaf move, but you’re able to notice it without thinking about it. In virtual reality, we can set up information so you can monitor and detect things in ways you couldn’t with just a 2-D screen.”

Fidelity Labs designer Maxx Andersen agrees. “Right now, we’re kind of constrained. We’re so used to 2-D in the financial industry. You look at dashboards and data on the S&P 500 or the DOW and it’s all 2-dimensional. But in VR, you could literally surround yourself in data. You could favor certain markets and they’d move closer to you. You could have an entire environment that’s a virtual market.”

“In VR, you could literally surround yourself in data. You could favor certain markets and they’d move closer to you. You could have an entire environment that’s a virtual market.”

Maximizing human inputs to process data will be a competitive advantage in the future, Fidelity Labs believes. Right now, the emerging technologies designers are working to figure out what works and what speaks to customers.

One day, we could be moving through a VR environment and sense—through sight, sound, haptic feel, maybe even smell—a change in markets, or be alerted to something in our investment portfolios.

Designing for emotion with VR

Virtual reality might have another benefit for financial institutions—it could help them work with the complex emotional relationship people have with their finances.

Fidelity Labs Creative Director Joanna Cohen explains that Fidelity Labs’ research shows people are often resistant to thinking about finances and the future. “We found that people don’t like to do long-term estate planning because it makes them confront questions of mortality and other fears,” she says.

Designer Peter McCormack sees virtual reality as a way to combat that human instinct to prioritize the short-term. “Fidelity is very focused on encouraging and educating people to invest for the long term,” he says.

Creating an emotional connection, he says, is key. People focus on things that make them feel good. “In the absence of an emotional connection to the future, it’s easy to not prioritize it.VR may hold the potential to help people keep their finances top of mindTwitter Logo, even when retirement is 40 years away.”

“If you can see your financial situation, touch it and visualize it in a way that doesn’t feel abstract, it changes the whole dynamic.”

If you can see your financial situation, touch it and visualize it in a way that doesn’t feel abstract, it changes the whole dynamic, Andersen agrees. “You get a statement at the end of the month, and the number can feel meaningless. But what if you could visualize your money piling up in a vault or in some other physical way? It makes things immediately real to you and changes the way you make financial decisions.”

The UX of VR—what to consider when designing in 3 dimensions

Fidelity Labs designers are quick to point out that creating experiences for VR is still a very green design field. They are learning the limits, possibilities, and design principles as they go, as well as innovating with a technology that’s swiftly improving.

When designing in 3 dimensions, designers have to think about head tracking, acceleration, eye movement, scale, spatial audio—and many more immersive design considerations with far less impact on 2-dimensional design.

“User testing takes on new meaning,” says McCormack. “It’s not like sitting someone down in front of a webpage where you’re watching their hands and eyes. You’re testing the whole person. Even though their body isn’t involved, their brain convinces their body that it’s involved.”

Early on, the Labs team ran into situations where environments would make testers—at that time, the designers themselves—extremely motion sick.

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“You would move people inside the environment, either them moving or the environment shifting around them, and their brain would say, ‘Okay, physically I am moving,’” McCormack explains. “But your brain also knows that you’re standing in the same place, but that feeling where everything is moving really causes that motion sickness. Plus, people have different tolerances for motion sickness.”

As VR technology has improved to create more and increasingly realistic inputs, the designers have been able to combat nausea by making sure they’re getting the basics of the environment right, such as lighting and horizon lines.

“It’s about anchoring people in an environment that feels very real,” McCormack says. “Because you’re doing all kinds of strange things to them, from the brain’s perspective. So the environmental inputs have to be right.”

What’s next for VR and Fidelity Labs?

When Schouela writes about stargazing at the Grand Canyon without ever leaving the Fidelity Labs Innovation Space, it’s easy to understand that with virtual reality, we’re literally in a “the sky’s the limit” field.

Schouela says it’s important for the group to innovate as much as possible on their way to creating proofs of concept. “We try as many things as we can as soon as we can,” he says, referring to all the rapid advances in VR technology. “We’re working toward putting together a larger proof of concept as to how VR can change how Fidelity educates its customers, but at the same time, we’re a lab. Our projects don’t necessarily have to be huge. We’re trying to understand what all the possibilities are, and they’re changing every day.”

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Andersen likens VR to the “Wild West of interactive design,” while McCormack enjoys the emphasis on “experimentation and exploration.”

“We’re trying to understand what all the possibilities are, and they’re changing every day.”

“There’s a very open, creative flow to designing for and in VR,” McCormack says. “Paradigms are shifting every day. You might discover the next equivalent of the dropdown menu or notification box. There’s no reason why not—we’re really on the cutting edge. What we’re doing, not many people have done before.”

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