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Best Practices for the Creation of Immersive and VR Experiences

Jonathan Lupo

VP, Experience Design, EPAM

Storytelling has entered a bold, new age. But, what has changed?

We are used to thinking of stories as linear narratives. That is, we tend to think of them as having a beginning, middle and an end. However, this conventional notion of linear narrative has changed with the rise of the Internet and the non-linear nature of hyperlinked content.

Today, technical innovations provide storytellers with an entirely new canvas. This exciting new canvas is more than non-linear; it enables storytellers to completely teleport visitors to new worlds. Immersive media gives them 360-degree and three-dimensional perspectives that make imagined worlds all the more convincing.

"Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) enable users to blend their actual surroundings (or new ones), countless perspectives, sensations, emotions, and a storyteller's limitless imagination"

From the perspective of the User Experience Designer, it's easy to get caught up in the hype of this new technology and forget basic design principles to guide the creation of immersive experiences. Indeed, immersive experiences introduce many design challenges. For example, there's a challenge between creating a curated experience versus one that invites the user to explore his or her surroundings.

In the future, when immersive experiences, such as VR, become increasingly commercial, there will be strong temptation for brands to try to control the user experience. It is important for brands to resist this temptation and understand that the more they try to control the experience, the more they run the risk of diluting the magic of the media. To the user, if the experience seems to “run on a rail” it runs the risk of “exposing the man behind the curtain.” In order to keep the magic alive, brands will need to strike the right balance between curation and exploration, when designing immersive experiences.

In order to ensure the proper balance of curation, exploration, user immersion, and engagement, the next generation of immersive experience designers must develop and follow best practices for the creation of VR and AR experiences:

1. Map the User's Emotional Journey – The difference between non-immersive, digital experiences and immersive ones lies in the latter’s potential to stimulate the user’s emotions. As a result of this emotional immersive experiences, users have a higher degree of focus and engagement with the content. To create a compelling emotional journey for the user, designers need to map out and identify the types of experiences that will effectively produce the user's desired emotional state, at appropriate moments in the experience.

2. Map the User's Physical Journey – Immersive, virtual reality experiences rely heavily on the design of the imagined environment, or, in the case of augmented reality, the overlay and projection of content and information on top of the user's actual, physical environment. In either case, the UX Designer must create an environmental map to represent the physical space that must be navigated. Doing so, enables exploratory and curated experiences to occur naturally, as the user moves through the experience.

3. Create Physical Laws and Experience Principles – We are able to comprehend and function effectively in our world because we are familiar with its natural laws, physics, and patterns. Even if a UX Designer wanted to create an entirely new world, he or she must first create guiding experience principles that, once learned, enable users to quickly become familiar and comfortable with their surroundings. That way, users focus more on having experiences and less on figuring out how to have one.

4. Use Audio in Addition to Video – One reason the Internet bears little resemblance to reality is because it is a predominantly silent universe. UX Designers have decided that audio may distract users when they are trying to complete tasks. With the exception of streaming videos and games, the Internet is largely a collection of silent tools for people to learn, communicate, and interact with brands. When creating VR experiences, however, designers are tasked with creating realistic or fantastical environments. Most environments, real or imagined, come alive with their own sounds. Audio adds dimension to physical spaces, increases engagement, and enhances the intended emotional tone. It is an essential component to telling a great story and creating a convincing world.

5. Allow Users to Interact via Directional, Extended Stare – User interaction and controls with mobile VR platforms are currently very limited. Google cardboard viewers (and their clones) enable simple interactions via a single button and Samsung VR has a button and a touchpad. There are some gamepads that claim to work as controls for mobile VR platforms on iOS and Android, but these are often difficult for consumers to pair via Bluetooth. Ensure great mobile VR experiences by giving users the option to stare for an extended period of time in a certain direction, placing a reticle over a menu item or user interface element, activating the selection.

6. Allow Users to Move Independently without Pointing Them in a Specific Direction – Mobile VR experiences are actually quite dangerous because users are untethered and free to wander about their real environment without being able to see and avoid real obstacles. To avoid lawsuits, UX Designers have developed some clever ways for users to wander about virtually. One workaround is to encourage users to look in a specific direction, and walk in place to move forward. Another workaround is to have users look in a specific direction, and tap or hold the hard button on the viewer to move forward (although this feels awkward and is a less natural behavior).

7. For Realistic VR, Use 3D and 360-Degree Video in Addition to Still Photography – VR experiences can feel quite artificial and game-like when designers use 3D models instead of photorealistic assets. While these choices may be appropriate for video games, they may not be the best choices for real-world experiences. When creating a realistic experience or for educational purposes, try to create environments using high-definition, 3D, and/or 360-degree video.


The Song Remains the Same

When designing immersive experiences, UX Designers should understand what story they are telling, and how best tell it in the environments they've created. To design a great experience requires research, planning, storyboarding, prototyping, testing, and iterating.

Sound familiar?

If you are a UX Designer, it should, because it is no different than the design process for any other interactive experience.

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