Virtual Reality: What People Want & How to Design for it

VR Cover photo
I was recently talking with Vincent Sitzmann of Stanford University's computational imaging lab, and he made an interesting comment about the VR industry:

"The VR industry hasn't fully taken off yet... what we need as a community is truly killer content or a must-have application that will make people overcome the cost hurdles and fully embrace VR."

Given the current heavy investment in VR and AR companies, it may seem like an odd perspective. But we have yet to hit the fabled tipping point where these technologies have replaced our laptops and phones and delivered us to a world in which we no longer have to communicate through 2D screens. So we must ask: what do people want in VR/AR and how can we as a design community design for it?

A recent VR experience study - published by Sitzmann and a team of researchers from Berkeley, Zaragoza, and Stanford - offers a few directional insights to help us as a design community transition from traditional 2D displays into this new 3D field of reality where the boundaries between the real and the virtual are becoming increasingly opaque.

What people want

VR Eye Tracking Map

Eye tracking and heatmap studies have been used for over a hundred years to help researchers better understand where people focus their attention. As such, they can reveal a lot about what people want, and how to optimally engage them.

The Stanford group presented 22 different 3D panoramas to participants, and tracked their eye movements. What they discovered shed some light on how people focus in 3D environments:

  • Vanishing points matter - See several of the bright red areas above? People spent a large amount of time looking at vanishing points (hallways, horizons). A key aspect of 3D environments is full immersion, so people want to explore. Exploring involves looking for exits and seeing where participants can go next.
  • People focus on faces - Like in real-world environments, people were most drawn to focus on other people, and spent a lot of time fixated on faces. We are humans after all, and just because we're in a virtual environment, it doesn't change our basic human drive to connect with the other people around us.
  • People read text - People read text whenever it was present in a 3D scene. This findings is promising for advertisers and interactions designer alike. Like in 2D design, balance is the key. People will read text, provided there isn't so much that it overwhelms.

How people navigate

Navigating virtual reality

Navigation and interaction in 3D environments has been extensively studied. Making human-virtual interaction more natural has prompted a few recent acquisitions by companies like Google VR. Watching people interact can reveal a lot about how to make virtual experiences more compelling and more natural.

In the Stanford study, detailed measurements of head movements and fixation - the amount of time a person's eyes are spent focused on a given area - were used to reveal some ways that humans navigate 3D scenes:

  • People scan, fixate, and repeat - People operated in two navigational modes - scanning and fixating. In the scanning mode, people moved their head quickly around the scene to identify salient features. In the fixating mode, they focused on a given feature of interest. They alternated between these modes until they had "taken in" the whole scene.
  • Attention span is limited - As a whole, people took in a given scene within 15-20 seconds. People were quick to identify and process the relevant features, even given relatively complex 3D environments. What this finding suggests is that the same old adage holds true: we (as designers) have mere seconds to grab a user's attention before they move onto something else. As the virtual and the physical fuse, and our already short attention spans get even shorter, it will be important to deliver compelling user experiences up-front.

Design to engage

VR panorama
As you approach designing for interactive 3D, start by asking yourself the most important question. What does the person want? Armed with that knowledge, get creative and design opportunities to engage them within an immersive environment, drawing upon your knowledge of how they navigate and where they will naturally focus their attention.

  • People are your canvas - People want to look at people, so use people as your canvas. What creative ways can you use humans as a canvas? Try taking your inspiration from the human canvas project.
  • Place prompts along sitelines - People want to move towards and away from things and to explore. Draw them towards elements by placing prompts along vanishing points where they are already looking. Think of interactions as happening in both space and time - get creative with how these two elements can play off one another.
  • Focus on what matters - To achieve focus and faster rendering times, keep your interactions focused around the horizontal plane. Other areas (ground, sky) are less likely to be viewed within a 3D medium. Non-focal areas can possibly have lower fidelity or higher compression, saving valuable design and compute cycles.

Experimentation is king

We are entering a new frontier where the possibilities are nearly infinite. As designers, developers, and technologists, our best tool will be the willingness to dive in, get messy, and experiment. User experience research methods (such as eye tracking studies) can help us understand how people interact with our creations. While some aspects of 3D design and navigation are different from their 2D counterparts, the human factors that matter most will never change.

Sincere thanks to Vincent Sitzmann and the extended research team at Stanford's computational imaging lab for inspiration and assistance with this article.