Real insights for designing virtual experiences

Consumer adoption of virtual reality (VR) may just be getting started, but by offering new ways to share stories and connect with users, this nascent technology is already having a big impact.

  • Top players shipped nearly 100 million VR and augmented reality (AR) systems in 2016.1
  • Worldwide, experts expect the market to exceed $100 billion in the next four years.2
  • The Chinese market alone is predicted to be worth $8.5 billion by 2020.3

From building empathy to training doctors and highly skilled workers to (gasp) even hacking your brain, new applications for this technology are being revealed nearly every day. Multiple industries, from retail and entertainment to education and healthcare, are seeing early results—and still buzzing with anticipation.

So, we threw a VR party and invited the community to share their insights and inspirations. Through the Forest. To the Mountain built three core experiences for visitors inside and around two retro ski gondolas at Connective DX. Guests could receive advice on a snowy VR mountaintop, take 360-degree pano-booth photos to share socially, and contribute to a community graffiti wall of advice and inspiration. Further downstream, the event and the crowdsourced content will be included in a digital web experience and project archive.

Take a ride on this journey and learn from our early explorations in designing virtual experiences.

Over the course of Design Week Portland we shared the experience with more than 100 guests, staff members and families. While we did not set out to perform user testing (“It’s a party!”), the process of designing and demonstrating our first VR experience showed us some of the hard facts about VR and the seemingly endless possibilities virtual mediums offer.

View inside the VR gondola

Start with a VR technology partner

As soon as VR was on the table, we knew we had to get our Delight Conference partners 360 Labs in on the action. Having built 360 content together for Delight in 2015 and 2016, this would be the first immersive cinematic VR experience we developed together. Engaging 360 Labs early in the process allowed us to understand constraints, ideate quickly and refine our VR daydreams into a quick three-month project. Using 360 Labs’ extensive library of cinematic 360 footage of scenic mountainscapes, we cut our production load significantly and could focus on the juicier, community-driven content.

The barriers to getting started in using cinematic 360 are actually very few. Consumer cameras are under $200 (pro models can run $36,000). Video editing and image stitching are relatively common digital skills, and platforms like Vimeo and YouTube just need a bit of metadata or a check box to display 360 content natively. Low-cost or free Google Cardboard viewers are ubiquitous and great starter viewers. Should your creative group or marketing team have some gear around to experiment and test with? Yes! By all means, get acquainted with the gear.

If you’re looking to test the value of storytelling in 360 or need to produce a first project on a tight timeline—bring in the professionals. The ecosystem is so vast, each service provides a slight variation of the other, and in most cases, you won’t know whether a technology choice is smart for your project until you test it, test it again, and test some more. In the new business realities that VR is creating, the value of partnering with experienced technologists to quickly iterate your ideas cannot be overstated.

Onboarding is guests in vr
Incidental user testing pro tip: Despite the complications of talking over a DJ, user testing at a party* is a great way to meet all your guests, make a connection, and avoid awkward self-introductions.

*This is only good party advice and should not be used in a clinical setting.

Onboarding is real

Onboarding VR is a real challenge you should plan for when building virtual projects. While VR buzz is everywhere, widespread consumer exposure to the technology and understanding of virtual experiences is still pretty limited. Only 10%–15% of the people I shared VR with during Design Week had ever experienced VR before. While it’s possible our event may have been particularly interesting to VR newbies, we also noticed our co-workers had limited exposure to the medium.

“If we’re doing this right, when I hand you these goggles you’re going to be on the mountain. You’ll know quickly if you’re not on the mountain. If you’re not there just tell me and we’ll get you there.”

—Me, 100+ times recently

Right now there are two camps: Those who own a VR system and those who’ve never tried it. With the number of available applications, platforms and VR devices, even people very familiar with VR may have encountered only one or two systems. A huge part of our evening was learning people’s comfort level and getting them plugged into the gear quickly. (What are people with glasses or big hair supposed to do in VR, anyway?)

Ask, don’t tell

For the moment, VR is a bit of a lonely place. With most entry-level gear, the user is often the only one who can see what they are experiencing and may not be able to communicate well to those outside their simulations. Once someone has acclimated to a VR device, the learning curve improves dramatically, but getting there can be a journey.

Our strategies for directing people through an interface in VR needed to change from commands to questions. Statements like “put your dot on the play button and tap here” failed most of the time. Instead, using questions to guide people had much better responses. “What do you see?” is unhelpful—users often need a suggestion and the encouragement to explore. “Are you on a mountain? Is it moving normal speed? Can you see the expert on the TV in the corner?” By asking questions your role switches from directing an experience to guiding users to find their own way. Be a VR sherpa.

VR is scary

“I thought it would make me sick.” “I didn’t want something overly aggressive or shocking.”

“I was worried about how VR might manipulate me.”
—VR skeptics I met

People understand the idea that VR can give them super-human perception or abilities, but not everyone is racing to take that red pill into The Matrix. Many new VR users do not expect to be comfortable in or enjoy immersive VR experiences. Several guests I spoke with had been waiting it out until the tech seemed approachable, under control, and safe to explore.

Despite telling each guest that we were sending them to the mountain in our gondola, many were excited to be “in the VR gondola I’m sitting in.” Giving the experience context and including familiar visual elements from the actual environment did a lot to reduce initial discomfort and help guests enter the story quickly.

Guests in the experience
There’s a curious pattern of photographing people experiencing VR.

VR users are vulnerable—protect them

The moment a user enters VR something happens to the people in the room around them. Similar to putting on a blindfold, the user becomes an unwitting fascination and there’s a tendency for people to haze and invade the VR user’s space. People immersed in VR are existing in one reality and perceiving in another reality—hazing a VR user is a multidimensional sucker punch. It’s your duty as a VR sherpa to make sure they have the space and security to explore your creations.

360 content means endless assets

VR content happens both in space and in time in ways that flat video fails. Even content photographed from a fixed point in VR has the added dimensions of perspective and time, the real time it takes a user to explore a virtual image. It’s a little like the Mannequin Challenge. An interesting thing happens to 360 content when you view it “flat.” A single image is infused with an infinite number of display options and opportunities for exploring an idea more deeply or in different formats. When planning your VR content, don’t forget to try a few new views.

A picture with a thousand views

flat.globetopbelowteam_connectiveFour views from the same Connective DX team pano-booth photo.

Check out our 360 pano-booth photos from the event on the Theta S site to further explore the variations that  images built in VR allow. While the links and transitions between flat screens and 360 content are still clunky, VR is being baked into many content and social platforms. Here are the same pano-booth pics on Facebook or Facebook 360, with yet another viewing experience. Viewers in cinematic 360 don’t direct the action or cinematography, but they can choose their field of view and what they pay attention to. Some of the real magic of VR is in that ability to choose.

Test the length of your content

The conventional knowledge around VR is that shorter experiences are better. Free branded content in the Occulus or Samsung libraries tends to be only a few snackable minutes and wraps one idea quickly. Constraining time is mostly a way to combat battery drain and the discomfort the new technology causes for many people. In other words: Deliver the story before they get sick.

What I saw during our party suggests that people have a tolerance for longer form content as long as they feel comfortable, safe and engaged. We built an extended length program, over 25 minutes of footage and expert advice, which presumed users would enter, explore and exit quickly. While some got a taste and exited, many guests found the scenery and pacing of the experience meditative and stayed “on the mountain.” With no distinct endpoint in the reel, there was no cue to leave.

Based on watching dozens of people interact with our experience, I see a strong case for longer form 360 content, but the market will need improvements in comfort and greater familiarity with the medium before extended play VR really hits. For now, like most aspects of VR, you’ll never know if the length is right unless you test and test again.

Design the ride, not a video

Whether you are a first-time viewer or a new VR experience designer, you never really know what VR will be like until you try it. Creatives, storytellers, educators and anyone with a unique perspective to share should definitely get acquainted with VR. Learn about the devices and interactions available, then find a partner who can help you focus your efforts—and test, test, test.

Remember VR is bigger than flat photography or video. Think of building for VR like designing an amusement park ride or a guided tour to a far-off land. Added dimensions like comfort, place and point of view mean every step of the ride, from context-setting to goodbye, is a chance to make real connections with your audience. So make them count.

VR has finally established itself as a revolutionary consumer product. The first generations of gear and content have enabled an explosion of interest, content and disruption, but most agree that we’ve only seen the tip of this $100 billion iceberg. Untapped opportunities for empathy, storytelling and education make VR a potentially game-changing tool for retail, media, brands or any organization that values a deep connection with customers. Why not join the party?

1 Paul Armstrong, Just How Big Is The Virtual Reality Market And Where Is It Going Next?, April 6, 2017
2 Tim Merel, The reality of VR/AR growth, January 11, 2017
3 Lulu Chen, China’s Virtual Reality Market Will Be Worth $8.5 Billion and Everyone Wants a Piece, May 15, 2016

How are you using VR to connect with your users? What have you learned that’s informing your experience design practice? Let’s continue the conversation below.