Creating the Virtual Realm: A guide to designing virtual reality experiences – part two

Oculus Rift VR headset

In our last article we discussed the impact of the explosion of virtual reality (VR) and its potential as we look ahead.

Since then, Facebook has announced it's gearing up for rise of VR ‘telepathic’ messaging, and a brand new visualisation lab has opened its doors in Milton Keynes to help construct virtual worlds that can be used to test the potential impact of tech on existing problems.

Now it’s time to consider how to go about developing our own VR ideas.

Here we will explore the process of design, and the key things to validate before practical work begins.

Before you start:

1. Validate your idea

There’s this ‘wow factor’ when you first enter a VR experience that can be truly mind-blowing. However, you must resist the urge to jump on the bandwagon and create arbitrary experiences that do not use the medium to its fullest. The potential of VR is to re-imagine reality, to personalise it – to allow access to objects, places and people that are out of reach in the real world. Ask yourself: is my idea accomplishing any of these things – and what is the specific VR benefit I am bringing to the table?

2. The narrative

VR is a completely new experience in which the narrative becomes the most crucial element. Our challenge is to transport our users. When they put on a headset, we invite them into a new world that should unfold in real time around them. Our users are not viewers of our virtual world – they are participants within it. The interactions we enable should not be arbitrary but purposeful.

There is a balance to be kept between the amazement of a user’s first entry into a beautifully designed VR environment, and their progress through the narrative journey we have created. This is why continual testing and refinement is so vital to the process. Plot a path through your experience, without setting obvious boundaries on the user’s ability to explore their world.

The creative process

3. A collaborative approach

Having determined that VR is the ideal medium for your idea, you must bring together the people who will deliver it. You will need a cross-disciplinary team, working collaboratively throughout. Creating a VR experience will require design, user experience, and behavioural and technical expertise – working together continually and able to input into all aspects of the project.

4. Design in VR when you design for VR

VR is far more than mere visual experience – we must therefore untether ourselves from the traditional methods of design. Immersion is everything. Start by prototyping with the headset on, and experience what you are designing at the earliest opportunity. While within the VR experience, you can play with scale, depth of field, the position of key focal points, mood and atmosphere, and also experience the presence of objects you place within the VR environment.

5. Test and refine

Test your experience as often as possible throughout the design process. You will find yourself tweaking and evolving your designs in ways you may not have expected, and would have missed if left to a later stage.

Continue to test in this way as often as possible to validate and inform your VR experience. Find new people to try the experience. See how they respond to the environment and the calls to action you place within it. See how they felt, what they noticed – and also what they did not see (or chose to ignore).

Now you have an idea you like. You know it works well within the VR medium and you’ve thought through your approach to delivering it.

In the final article of this series, we’ll explore the virtual world itself and the elements that will make for a truly immersive experience.

Andy Hood is head of emerging technologies and Resh Sidhu is creative director, both at AKQA.

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Andy Hood and Resh Sidhu

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