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A UX perspective of VR & AR

Experience Architect Jamie Stantonian shares his recent experience of VR

For years it was a running joke in the web industry that the coming year might be “the year of the mobile web”. We could all see it was coming, but at the same time it always seemed to be hovering just out of reach, just out of our grasp. Would the much-hyped WAP technology bring about this change? Or the high end feature phone, the Nokia N95? There were many false starts and flops. Then like a thunderstorm, it happened. And the combination of multitouch screens and 3G phone networks that ushered in the new era, transformed not just mobile technology, but marketing, commerce and arguably the nature of society itself.

Today with VR we site on the edge of a similar transition. Citi recently forecast that VR and AR will be a trillion-dollar industry by 2035, so it is no surprise that all of the major technology companies are climbing over each other to establish themselves as market leaders. Samsung’s Gear VR and the newly announced Google Daydream aim to bring such experiences into the mainstream by building on the foundations of the mobile web. Oculus owner Facebook recently shared its vision for what social VR might look like, including making video calls from inside virtual space, and there are industry murmurs that Apple and Amazon are also working in secret to create VR technologies, judging by their hiring practices at any rate.

PlayStation VR, the design of which owes some sort of hat-tip to Sega’s moribund effort from 1995 has launched to almost exclusively positive reviews and sold out on Amazon after 10 minutes, while Sega VR perished in utero due to its sheer impossibility. Disney, the grandmasters of Experience Design, are pouring money into its VR design studio while Sky have just launched an impressive trailer for their future VR services. So was 2016 the year of VR, as some pundits predicted? No, probably not. But we can see glimpses of what is to come, as if through cracks in the future. Here are two experiences that I saw showcased at a recent Event in London which I think give a taste of what is to come.

Swooping down from the heavens we skirt across the skyline of South West London as if it is an architectural model, diving into Wimbledon Stadium past a crowd frozen in jubilation, and right into the back of Andy Murray’s head. To an orchestral score, the Scottish champion describes the pressure of what it is like to have the eyes of the world in laser-beam focus on you. For the most part this “Feel Wimbledon” experience succeeds in what it sets out to do. Created by Mindshare and partners to promote Jaguar as the official car of the contest, it was more like a vivid hallucination than a traditional piece of marketing, yet it was so powerful – they say – that it drove at least one woman to tears of joy. It also had the more practical result of leading to a 111% increase in web traffic to Jaguar’s website and had a “measurable impact on the brand”.

Children board a school bus in what they think is routine trip. Halfway through the journey, the windows blacken, and the scenes of Washington DC dissolves to Martian landscape of ruby rock formations and futuristic human habitations. Perfectly synced to the streets of the US Capital, each twist turn around the rocks of mars, indeed each bump in the road, is perfectly reflected in the 200 square mile game-engine landscape in these high-tech transparent displays. For the excited children who Lockheed Martin and Framestore hope to inspire to help us become a multi-planet species, they are magically transported 54 million kilometres, and a generation into the future through the world’s first shared VR experience.

Mike McGee of Framestore said they want to “Create images that haven’t been seen before” and “raise the VR bar”. And they certainly seem to be achieving both of these things. Their other projects, such as a VR rock climbing experience for Merrell, are pioneering new technologies and new ways of guiding attention to best utilise the new medium, adding elements such as smell and temperature that on the surface appear hopelessly gimmicky, but which when pulled off right add new levels of depths to the experience.

What these and other experiences have in common is that they are very strange. One in which “advertising has the chance to reinvent itself for the next hundred years” says Tamara Sword of TRMandC, who also describes the new medium as an “empathy machine”. Certainly the hyper-stimulated public is somewhat numbed to traditional advertising as it is to other media, and this new realm offers the possibility of delivering something deeper, even meaningful, in a place that could be an oasis from the bedlam of the rest of the medial landscape.

It is sometimes hard to communicate the power of VR experiences if you’ve not had one. Watching them on a flat screen simply does not do the medium justice; it is a bit like communicating the power of film by showing somebody a series of photographs. Despite some headsets having grainy resolution and graphical fidelity below what we’ve come to expect in video games, our entire nervous system is tricked by the all consuming illusion. It is this sense of presence which is the transformative nature of the medium.

To my shame I scoffed when I first saw a video of Google’s Tilt Brush. Actually using it was another thing entirely. After a few moments getting used to the interface – one hand controlling a palette of psychedelic 3D brushes and the other to paint – I was lost creating impossible structures with almost instinctual ease. Suddenly, whole new vistas of potential opened up as it struck me that this was just the Deluxe Paint of virtual creative tools, some creature flapping about in the Cambrian swamp. Still to come are the tools for new generations of architects, artists and engineers, creating vast structures and microcosms, playing with time, space and scale unhindered by the laws of physics.

The opportunity within commerce is vast, particularly in the realm of social shopping hinted at by Facebook. Chinese search giant Alibaba is already charging ahead with visions of what commerce may look like in VR with its “Buy+” experiments that sees users placing virtual furniture in their real houses in order to try it out and nodding to confirm a purchase. Matt Gee of Isobar told us of experiments they were conducting with 360 degree video of a catwalk with a gesture that lets users to tap the side of their headsets to put it in their basket, the tap a second time to purchase. Importantly, this experiment gave a very small time window to complete the purchase before the offer was gone forever, exploring impulse buys.

Charities, too, are seeing the potential of VR as an empathy machine. Gabriel Hartnell, Fundraising Manager for the WWF, has seen VR transform charities relationship with the public. Rather than talking large arcs in the street to avoid “charity muggers”, VR experiences offered by charities have led to people queueing to engage with them and high increases in domnations.

From the world of empathy to the abstract world of data visualisation. Simon Windsor of Hammerhead VR spoke of a project he was currently involved with for Volkswagen that would allow users to inhabit and explore data sets looking for patterns. Exactly what patterns he was not permitted to say, but said it involved much pioneering research into the best way to visually and spatially represent information in a comprehensible manner comprehensible to people. Such tools pick up the baton of Muriel Cooper’s 1994 vision of information landscapes, the prospect of which represents challenges for those in the UX profession, who like myself often come with lofty titles like “UX Architect”.

Could human pattern recognition skills, currently going somewhat haywire through exposure to vast amounts of information on the web, be once again tamed to seek out patterns in electronic data forests? Will we one day be training people to use complex interfaces but to sense the characteristic signature of data using sight, sound, and even smell, and pursue it until we find our quarry? Reactivating dormant instincts that we’ve not used fully since the Savannah?

The dawn of VR illuminates a very strange world indeed. And much the early era of the mobile web, few foresaw the profound impacts of companies like Uber or Tinder would have on society. As we feel our way through the dark there will be similar triumphs and Damascus-like moments where we sit, awestruck, wondering how nobody had thought to do something like this before. There will also be epic fails and commercial disasters on dot-com scales.

But one thing is for certain, if the past is a foreign country, then the future is another world.

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