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Considering the UX of Developing in Multiple Realities

Nov 29, 2017 By Crissy Campbell

This is a guest post from faculty member Dr. Patrick Pennefather.

Note: This article is based on the author’s inadvertent and pervasive adventures within the international VR/AR/MR landscape over the past year and a half, presenting at and experiencing China Joy, chairing eight developer’s sessions at CVR and a set of VR/AR panels at Enterprising Culture; a French consular co-pro with the CDM and ECUAD bringing together AR and VR startups from France, Ontario and Vancouver. He has also presented CDM VR hybrids in the health space at the Interface Health Summit, proposed the improvement of the public presentation of VR experiences at a VR track within the SPLASH conference , facilitated an improv workshop for game devs at IndieCade, attended meetups with researchers from the post-secondary development ecosystem in Vancouver, Victoria and beyond @ RAVR, has seen the inception and rapid coming-together of the Cube to incubate VR, AR and Mixed Reality in Vancouver fueling a second phase application process for mega-federal-supercluster-bucks, and is recuperating from VR hangovers having played dozens of VR, AR and MR games, apps and experiences in the past year on Oculus, Vive, Gear, Sony, Daydream and ones he no longer remembers.

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality development are alive and well even if we’d like the buzz to wear off and for humanity to stop mediating real reality (RR) so much. While new developments, opinions, intrigue, and investment in VR, AR and other mixed R’s appear to be hitting highs akin to real estate valuation in Vancouver, it might be a good time for us as a community to more deeply question our motivations to develop in this space and understand the dev territory. Like other surges of interest and tech rally cries, the ability for xR (x representing Virtual, Augmented, Mixed or hybrids) to propose an alternate reality is attractive and potentially spellbinding but it’s not the only tech taking off. That shared space with other mediated realities is part of the reason growth is slower than what those pesky futurists predicted. The reality room is crowded, somewhat fragmented, with tiny pockets of money being sourced for overly ambitious and over scoped projects. Dev time is generally underestimated, the UX of the xR’s is not really being focused on enough, and we could spent more time sharing development processes, and developing sustainable and strategic partnerships instead of going solo while competing for small piles of cash.

Testing VR experiences at China Joy.

Who Are You and What Do You Think You Could Contribute to the VR or AR Ecosystem?

As part of a community of Reality developers, I, like many, get used to asking those wanting a VR product, “Why VR?”. This is because of interacting with many an individual or organization who want to jump onto the latest alternative reality craze without having first asked that increasingly important question. Simply responding with "Why Not VR?" may no longer be a clever enough comeback unless your or your client have loads of time and money and are detached from the outcome. Same goes with AR. Why develop for these mediated realities? Is it to demonstrate that you or a brand you are supporting is hip, that you are part of a community of future technologists and not just a witness? Is it because developing in VR is sexy to funders or can get you a grant? Before diving into VR, throwing bitcoins at it, misunderstanding when/if we will actually make a profit, or paying someone to make something 'current and therefore awesome that few might actually use', we might want to all become better Reality development interrogators.

These are just some of the questions we may want to ask:

  • Why should I develop in VR right now over another R?
  • What new experiences can our golden R afford that no other technological medium can?
  • How is the industry as a whole doing at motivating consumer adoption of VR?
  • When I say ‘the’ industry, which one I am referring to?
  • Who are the major players in the AR space and how are they making money?
  • Who is making any kind of money in the reality space, what are they doing, and how do we find out?
  • How does VR fare compare to other R’s in terms of the most important R (ROI)?
  • If we are so interested in developing in this space, what plans do we have to create or co-create a sustainable business model in VR?
  • How important is networking and partnering in the R spaces to your own UX as a developer?

But let’s cut to the chase right away. If your motivation is that you think we’ll make money from VR or (x)R, in the short term, read this Motherboard article. While those who may put forth the argument, "oh that’s VR, AR is a totally different story and I’m going to make a killing with it," you may be in for some augmented disenchantment.

Adjusting Our Motivational Headset More Intentionally

Interrogating our motivation to dive into Reality development will help align our interests with others. That’s important, given the xR dev space is not that new, yet still unpredictable, high risk and replete with investors who, like many a consumer, are waiting for more persistent and fulfilling xR experiences before putting down more real money.

It doesn’t help matters that there are hundreds of xR demos that don’t go anywhere and end up in many a developer’s Unity graveyard, and that some half-lifers make it to conference floors before reaching the same fate. Yet, there’s nothing wrong with not further developing xR prototypes that might have proved out an idea, supported learning, served as a marketing ploy (KLM’s Flight Upgrader) been utilized as experimental object of research, or demonstrated a cold hard end to a deliciously unscalable idea. And don’t get me wrong, there are success stories. Oculus VR started as a Kickstarter, received way more than their initial goal, and was sold to Facebook for 2 billion. Who knew that VR would also be ahead of all expectations in reinventing profitable location based entertainment? Except, maybe for Niantic. Despite their tremendous unanticipated rise and spectacular dip with Pokemon Go Fest, they are still in the game.

In proposing that we more deeply adjust our motivations to dev in xR I’m also drawing critical attention to financial projections that by 2020 or 2025, billions more revenue will be generated in some alternate reality industry. Regardless of the intention for statements like that to engender excitement, buy-in and encourage investment, asking how to position yourself for a small piece of that virtual pie is probably wise. Those with money to invest in the xR space are guided by cautious optimism and healthy skepticism.

Positioning Yourself in Relation to VR/AR and Other xR Users

A 2017 YouGov survey targeting consumers in the U.S. revealed some startling figures in relation to consumer adoption in VR. Suffice it to say, that many of the results demonstrate a continued challenge for developers to create better experiences for their audiences since data showed that overall "people are getting terrible first impressions of VR due to inferior hardware and applications." As we start to think about our own UX as part of a community of developers in xR spaces, we also need to more deeply probe how what we do will impact actual users of our Realities.

If you want to teach in the xR space, consider how what you teach can improve the user experience of future xR developments. If you want to focus on conducting research, what research would benefit a community of developers to help them create better xR experiences? If your ambition is to launch a new Reality start-up targeting business, then what type of Reality experiences will support an employee’s day in a work life and support that business’s value proposition? Will your VR product convert non-VR users to persistent ones or are your target users better off with an AR experience? How does the comfort of wearing a VR headset inform how we design for our users? If comfort and duration of use are important to us as developers, why are we thinking of the same VR experience on multiple headsets and devices? What are the design constraints informing which mobile device we build our AR experiences for? Are we making an assumption that if we build it, then due to hype, it shall be installed, opened, placed up to the head and augment a reality that might actually be good enough as is?

VR testing at Centre for Digital Media.

Some Good Use-Cases in the xR Space

The real reality is not so bad though. There are developers, across a wide spectrum of uses from entertainment to education, who are asking the right questions and addressing UX head-on. Llamazoo and their Easy Anatomy experience offers students and professionals dissection labs, clinical studies and procedures with a feature rich 3D canine in VR and now AR. Rather than get caught up in walking by too many artifacts in a space, marvel at how VR supports rich storytelling in the arts, including museum and public installation experiences and how HTC is putting money behind the interest. Scratch your head in wonder as VR can inadvertently help people get over their fear of height, with Save a Cat or Die Trying, (or further traumatize an acrophobe). Why not be mildly impressed that retail stores can expand their tight spaces into more open virtual ones and offer customers a way to experience a product from all angles that might not be carried in the physical store (like Baby 2 Go). Meanwhile, developers of Ottawa-based Masterpiece VR have created a collaborative 3D creation tool you literally can wrap your arms around, and they have bigger plans too. Vancouver developers like Archiact are realizing that flexibility in VR development is advantageous, targeting Schema for architects and their new co-op multiplayer first-person-shooter Evasion for gamers. Discover Histovery, a French company dedicated to bringing historical sites to life with AR on their HistoPads looking through a “window to the past”.

From the point of view of a user experience designer we could argue the night away as to how VR actually might never ever be comfortable and long lasting and how AR is far off from solving occlusion on mobile. OR, we could accept that we as humans are ok with short uncomfortable experiences that don’t have to be photo-realistic, if we can on any level be completely immersed by a new experience even for a short period of time.

Inconclusive Conclusions

This idea of alternative realities that aim to replicate similar aspects of immersion as RR is not really going away. In developing xR the cry of potential is what seems to keep us all motivated to continue. At the CDM, we’ve had our fair share of xR dev projects and we are committed in continuing to partner with companies, researchers and non-profits who want to prototype in this rapidly shifting space. We position ourselves as a research and development hub where our students not only learn how to co-create projects with real clients, but become better interrogators of the Realities that they prototype.

As part of a community of developers and having been equally inspired by good prototypes, glitchy demos and engaging public releases, I believe that our ongoing commitment to xR development will remain strong as long as we keep asking those tough UX questions, and understand how we position ourselves within a thriving development ecosystem. Despite the fact that focus and investment WILL shift between the R’s, it is important to not just be guided by where the money is going, but instead to intentionally navigate yourself through this turbulent dev territory and know that all realities can co-exist and the one’s that you co-create may inspire and transform.

Rather than hedging indecisively over which Reality we develop for, it might be better to ask what type of reality we would like to create for our potential audience and how that will provide them with an experience they might actually need, and will come back to. 

Want to learn how to build VR and other digital media products? Check out the Master of Digital Media program.