Designing for virtual reality

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Designers working in the virtual reality (VR) space are the pioneers of the new infant Virtual Reality Revolution as technology begins to catch up to the ideas that first sprouted in the mid-90s.

The nascent VR application industry requires different skillsets from the currently-trending mobile computing field. The context for VR applications is vastly different from the context for mobile computing applications—instead of the small mobile screen that can be distracting in some scenarios and ignored in others, VR is an immersive experience that the user has to choose to engage with and that filters out distractions for the duration of the experience. Instead of 2D, VR is 3D. VR removes the interface layer between the user and the user experience and is the opportunity to create a truly interactive—and not just a reactive—experience, where the environment can prompt the user.

The VR medium provides a new experience for interaction, design, productivity and play. While the medium calls for some brand new user experience guidelines, the fundamentals of design and accessibility still apply. Above all, products that are useful, usable and delightful are products that are well-designed, regardless of the medium.

Since VR is in its nascent stages, this is a great opportunity for inclusive design to be engrained into the DNA of VR design. Because VR is dependent on a variety of cues that appeal to different senses, and because it is designed to be highly sensitive to each user’s unique inputs, it is in many ways implicitly inclusive. VR can stimulate perception and attention in a way other interfaces have not been able to in 2D, which again spells an opportunity to pioneer inclusive design. In addition, because there is so much competition for VR on price point, platform and approach, a variety of different solutions are being developed that see things differently and appeal to different groups of people.

VR design building blocks

Inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the hierarchy of needs in VR design dictates that the lower blocks must be fulfilled before the designer pursues the higher-level blocks.

VR building blocks: comfort, interpretability, usefulness and delight [1]

The base block is comfort: the user must be able to experience the VR environment without undue physical or mental discomfort.

Interpretability is the block stacked on top of comfort: the environment has to make sense to the user. While the environment does not have to be realistic, it does have to use reality and the laws of physics as a baseline.

Usefulness is the next block: the experience has to prove its value and show that it has a purpose.

Delight is the final block. Once the user is physically and mentally comfortable in the environment, understands what’s going on, and knows that there is value in it, only then does the environment have the opportunity to add the final block of delight. To delight a user means to leave him with a lasting impression of the environment so that he thinks about it once he exits—and so that he wants to return. To delight a user typically requires employing persuasion to evoke emotion and trust. One of the strongest persuasion tactics in the VR medium is to make it beautiful.

Following these building blocks also ensures the VR experience is kept as inclusive as possible, ensuring every user is comfortable and aware of his surroundings.

Design principles


The future of VR user inputs starting from now and going into the future based on technology support: head tracking, controller, eye tracking, position tracking, hand tracking, micro gestures, mind event [2]

VR dependency on user inputs creates an accessible and inclusive experience for each unique user. As long as the VR is sensitive to user inputs,the environment is tailored to each individual user based on his individual inputs.

Head tracking is a common way the VR system collects user inputs to ground the user in the environment. By tracking the orientation of the user’s head, the environment can create the direction that the user is looking to.

A game controller is another common and familiar form of user input. Many see the game controller as taking away from the immersive experience of VR. As technology advances, it’s expected that game controllers will be used less and less frequently.

Eye tracking is a future state input. Most VR systems can’t track eye position due to limitations in technology. Instead, a reticle is employed to help centre the user. A reticle can also help to indicate whether an element is interactive.

Body tracking across six degrees of freedom is one of the main ways in which the VR system is expected to collect inputs going into the future. Three degrees of freedom are for orientation tracking, and another three are for position tracking.

Hand motion is another future-state input. At this point, technology is not mature enough to accurately capture hand and finger microinteraction.


A cue is a channel of information that helps to correctly interpret structure in the environment or an element within the environment. Inputs serve as cues to the environment on what element the user is trying to interact with. For example, with the help of head tracking, a reticle, and perhaps a game controller, gaze can be used as a cue to indicate which element the user wants to interact with. From a system perspective, motion, sound and light can be used as cues for the user to learn which elements are interactive, or which way he should proceed. Minimalist VR design would encompass the minimum number of cues required for the environment to make sense to the user.

VR is inclusive in that it depends on a vast variety of cues that appeal to different senses. In order to create an environment that makes sense to someone of limited ability, there would have to be enough cues that appeal to the particular user’s senses in order to create a ‘full picture’.


All interactive elements should respond to movement.

People move in arcs, not in straight lines—so move people accordingly so they feel the movement is natural and can interpret it easily.

Constant velocity should be used at low speeds so as not to compromise the first building block of VR design and make the user uncomfortable—or worse, nauseous. The Google Cardboard Design Lab is experimenting with 83 milliseconds of acceleration, about 3 m/s of constant velocity, and 266 milliseconds of deceleration [2].

Spatial audio

Spatial audio is another important aspect of VR. Sound can be employed in locations oriented around the user to get the user’s attention, and the user can look toward the direction of the headphone the sound came from. This is one example of how VR creates opportunity for the environment to interact with the user first, as opposed to just react to the user.


Creating a scale difference between the user and his environment is part of what makes VR a unique experience. One way to delight a user would be to create an environment that feels vast in scale compared to the user.

Avoiding strain

Movement should be restricted in the periphery so as not to make the user uncomfortable.

User should not be asked to look down more than necessary, as that may cause neck strain.

Designers need to be conscious of causing eyestrain either by asking the user to focus on one point for too long, or introducing too much graphical detail.

Skeumorphic and flat design

Skeuomorphism or flat design: skeuomorphism was used more in the early days of digital, and it employs shadow, light and illustrations of likeness to make a digital product resemble its real-life counterpart; flat design is more popular now, and uses 2D iconography to signify the affordance of the product [3]

In the past, design for mobile and desktop favoured skeuomorphism, meaning that application design employed light and shadow to create 3D semblance and real-life likeness. More recently, users have grown accustomed to the digital medium, and flat design has grown in popularity, as designers have realized that users don’t need skeuomorphism or real-world likeness to understand application affordances.

Although VR is by definition a 3D environment that can be made to look like an immersive real world, that approach won’t necessarily benefit the user most. Just like the evolution of digital design principles, it can be expected that VR will evolve from a skeuomorphic, real lifelike design to one that emphasizes certain likenesses and de-emphasizes others based on how cues work together to construct an environment that is comfortable, makes sense, has purpose and delights.


Any text should be bright, bold and contrasted, to make it easily-legible.

VR based solely on sound is another nascent field. See more in Sonic wayfinding.

VR hardware complexity


The most basic type of VR hardware is essentially a holder for the smartphone, like Google Cardboard. Google has recently announced the Daydream platform, which is integrated on VR devices.

Having basic options for VR make it accessible to almost everyone on price point.


The mid-range VR hardware is self-contained, like Oculus Rift. It has its own display and headphones, and can be integrated with other hardware.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is beyond a contained VR experience because it superimposes virtual elements onto the real world and takes in both real-world and virtual cues. Microsoft’s HoloLens is an example of a headset that accommodates AR.


Technology dependents

The progress of VR is dependent on technology advancing in the following six areas:

1. Intent capture: fluidly understand what the user wants to accomplish at any given moment via a multitude of cues

2. Persona capture: appealingly represent the user and his appearance, behaviour, mood and non-verbal cues; note this is where the argument against skeuomorphic design may come into play, as persona does not necessarily have to be visually true to life but may work even better if it captures something truer than life

3. Environment capture: sense and create real-world environments (same argument about skeuomorphism comes into play with the environment)

4. Environment rendering: create delightful virtual worlds

5. Hardware: middleware, engines

6. Support tools: distribution platforms, authoring tools

Design dependents

The progress of VR is dependent on design advancing in the following three areas:

1. Usability: how users want to communicate intent in a virtual world

2. Narrative: how do we tell stories in a virtual world

3. Information representation: how do we maximize what we know about perception to help change how we see things

Business dependents

The progress of VR is dependent on the business environment advancing in the following two areas:

1. Business model: market segment and sizing, monetization

2. Consumer: readiness and penetration; some apps do well with early adopters, others require widespread adoption and use to be effective

Future advancements


Advancements in VR in the short-term can be expected in the following fields:

● Games, with dependencies on:

○ Virtual world rendering

○ Narrative: how to establish and develop story lines

● Live events, with dependencies on:

○ Real world rendering

○ Environment capture

○ Content deals and distribution platforms

● Real estate, with dependencies on:

○ Environment capture

● Journalism, with dependencies on:

○ Environment capture

○ Narrative


Advancements in VR in the medium-term can be expected in the following fields:

● Productivity, with dependencies on:

○ User intent capture

○ Purpose definition

● Communities, with dependencies on:

○ Persona capture

○ Product design

● Cinema, with dependencies on:

○ Creative direction

○ Narrative and storytelling

● Education (with different dependencies based on subject)

● Travel/adventure, with dependencies on:

○ Environment capture

○ Make use of as many senses as possible: spatial audio, light, etc.

● Shopping, with dependencies on:

○ Product design

○ User intent capture

○ Persona capture

○ Environment render

● Sports, with dependencies on:

○ Product design

○ Environment render


Advancements in VR in the long-term can be expected in the following fields:

● Business communication, with dependencies on:

○ High-fidelity interpersonal relations

○ Presentation of information and ideas

○ Product design

● Personal communication

○ Persona capture

● Expanded perception

○ Novel presentations of data and sensory input

VR designer qualifications


Traditional digital designers know how to work with devices that have physical boundaries; but VR has no physical boundaries. In designing digital products, the question is often—‘how do we make an element appear and disappear?’ When there is no boundary and nowhere for the element to toggle, that kind of question becomes redundant. Still, traditional design skills will be needed for VR design, in addition to a host of non-traditional digital design skills.

VR designers will come from a variety of fields. Game designers will bring knowledge of narratives and of manipulating 3D environments. Perceptual scientists will bring knowledge of how the brain works and how it’s stimulated. Photographers will bring an understanding of field of view, depth of fields, caustics, exposure, light and texture. Architects will bring knowledge of the built environment. Cartographers will know how to create maps and cities. Prop designers will bring knowledge to create elements. Coders can apply their programming skills to Unity or Unreal, both of which use code to create VR environments. Motion designers will bring their knowledge of movement.

Team roles

Although VR design teams are still in nascent stages and different companies will form teams in different ways, the following roles will be common on many teams:

● Research

● User experience

● User interface design

● Motion design

● Visual design

● Prototype

● Engineering


A multitude of tools is commonly used for VR design, prototyping and development:

● Pen and paper: fast iteration requiring little tool skill

Sketch: easy-to-use, great export and integration tools and plug-ins

Cinema 4D: easy-to-learn 3D prototyping tool

Maya: industry standard for 3D prototyping; robust and heavy-weight 3D prototyping tool that can manage large simulations; considered the best tool for rendering, modeling, animation and rigging; highly-customizable; difficult to learn; requires a high level of skill

Unity: leading game engine; great documentation, tutorials and learning platforms; uses C#, JavaScript and Microsoft Visual Studio

Unreal: new competitor for Unity; best graphic capabilities in terrain, particles, post-processing effects, shadows, lighting and shaders; uses C++ and Blueprint, a visual script editor


The metaverse is a collective virtual shared space at the intersection of community, communication and commerce. Since the 1990s, some have seen metaverse as the natural evolution of the Internet, where people interact via personas in an augmented reality world. See the full article at Metaverse.


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