One of the most important aspects of virtual reality is the way the headset can engage users. Like blinders on a horse, it focuses the users’ most prominent sense, the eyes, and ensures they are paying attention. Yet, we forget the user is also blind and cannot see input devices, the mouse, their keyboard, even, (though this is changing rapidly) their own hands.
It seems like common sense but it is a fact that has been taken completely for granted for as long as there have been screens: Your user can always look down and see the mouse, the controller, the joystick or remote. At a foundational level we have designed with this in mind, or more accurately, without even considering the alternatives.
I'm not going to go into much design theory or history; I am focused on the future. The only important context is to remember that we have to frame every design aspect with this concept: Our user is blind; how will this affect their user experience?
There are a few basic guidelines to remember. They are:
2. Tells (Engagement vs. Disengagement
1. Simplicity -
This cannot be overstated in the design steps. KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid. Reduce steps. Reduce the necessity for the user to even have to use a physical input device. Stand back and ask yourself does the user REALLY have to control the experience using that mechanism. Do they have to control it at all? Remember, you are trying to engage their mind, not their hands. Every time they should have to touch something should have meaning.
For example, in the Incident Command module of Live Simulator, we made sure that there was only one button to press. That’s it. This was the radio button, because the Incident Commander will interact with the scene using his voice; sometimes through the radio, sometimes through face to face. The point is, we specifically designed the simulation in mind with this button press; we wanted to connect to the real memory of using a radio so that the experience would be seamless.
If you absolutely have to have your user control something, remember there are alternatives to the hands. Many of the more successful early demos and products simply used head tracking, one of the main prerequisites of modern VR, as an input device. A small circle rests in the center of the users view - this acts like a cursor and if is placed in a certain box for a few seconds, that box or option is selected. (Imagine like your camera’s crosshairs when you aim.) This means of interaction is both simple and intuitive. There are newer headsets that incorporate eye tracking—side note, that is going to change everything, how you watch media, how you read, etc) The eye tracking makes it extremely easy to control. Literally things can be activated simply by looking at them.
2. Tells - -
The goal of any VR application should be the maximum level of engagement; similar to a movie or play, you do not want your user to be "aware" they are watching just a "move or play". The way your user interacts with your VR product will absolutely make or break the engagement. For example, if you are trying to record user input and it requires the user type something, what will the user end up doing? They will instinctively look down for the keyboard only to feel the jarring sensation of contrast between what they see (or rather, what they DON'T see, the keyboard) and what actually is there. The moment your user asks, "How do I…" you have lost their engagement. It is much better to gather as much information as possible before they put on the headset. If you have to gather it, voice recognition, or better yet, an operator, can facilitate the experience so the user can stay engaged.
This is particularly vital for training simulations. One of the universally hated aspects of traditional EMS/FIRE scenarios is they necessitate asking questions one would never ask during a real event. For example, you would never ask:
"How do I look at the patient's vitals?" or “Which part of the building is on fire?”
In VR, you would simply look and gain the information for yourself, just like in real life. Yet, if your interface is not intuitive or simple, you will find your users asking this very same question, instead of being engaged by your simulation.
We tracked these breakdowns in engagement during the development of Live Simulator by asking users to hit a button. Of course there were times they even forgot to do this; we discovered that if we played back the scenario they were able to recall feeling a sense of disengagement. This information is design pay dirt as it tells you exactly where the breakdowns are occurring. (Incidentally, you learn A LOT about how people think regarding scenarios)
You can save a tremendous amount of time during development by constantly imagine how a user blind to their input devices, such as a mouse or keyboard, will interact with every step of your program. This is considered a foundational component when developing for VR because once the VR interface is built it can be very difficult to change if proper interactions have not be built in from the ground up.
Note - There are actual input devices that ARE visible in the game world. The HTC Vive has controllers that are visible INSIDE the program and these devices can appear as whatever the developers decide. While in the real world they are holding a black plastic controller, in the VR environment they are holding a sword, or comical hands. While this is an important first step towards integrating the users input devices with their experience. (The user can see the "button' but they cannot see their own finger…one day soon we will have haptic gloves that can be seen in the VR)
A good way to work on this idea of developing for the blind is to examine the design qualities of the incredibly successful iPhone. Apple made sure every user, not just a tech guru, would be able to have a good experience using their product. Just like Apple wouldn't just *assume* their user would understand how to swipe, a VR developer cannot rely on their users ability to remember which finger they left on the key. Don’t take it for granted that your user will intuit exactly how to use the products.
We required the entire development staff, even the creator, to volunteer to teach the elderly basic computer use at least once a week. This made us remember that, while we may be able to figure things out, like a puzzle, others will simple see a wall, a dead end.
3. Intensity & Fatigue– While it may happen differently in science fiction, for at least the present time, users know they are in a simulation. As much as we pride ourselves at Live Simulator on being the most realistic training platform available, no one finishes one of our scenarios, removes the headset, looks around the room confused and asks, “How did I get here?”
Yet, there does seem to be a point where the user has “had” too much. Like any mental exercise, it is important to take appropriate breaks. We have noticed that the more intense a scenario is (though what “intense” means seem to vary from user to user) the quicker that fatigue sets in. The simplest way to describe VR fatigue is:
“I want to take this thing off.”
While this is pure speculation at this time, we believe there is a “mental friction” that takes place in the brain when it is undergoing a simulation. The brain seems to be aware that something isn’t quite right with reality. The more intense the simulation, the more friction there tends to be. The friction builds up as time goes on until eventually, like a bad itch, the user can’t help but disengage and remove the headset. Scenario over.
This is important to remember because it directly affects how long your simulations should be. Right now the most successful ones seem to be in the 5-10 minute range, but there are longer ones as well. VR Theatres, for example, are popular in the VR community and have users “staying in” for hours at a time. Obviously a fire or medical scenario is going to vary in time, depending on the choices being made by the user. However, by outlining the paths and directions the scenario can lead to, you can get a good idea of how long even the most unskilled user is likely to remain “inside.”
Back To The Real World
It has been very exciting to be a part of the VR industry because we are literally writing the rules as we discover them. Design principles, as with any media, are vital to connecting users with the reality you have constructed for them. See you inside!