User Experience in 360° Virtual Reality – Part 1

Virtual Reality is for everyone

VR is not, by any means, new technology. However, its rise to widespread availability and consumer-friendly costs are much more recent developments. This change has lead to somewhat of a VR revolution. Widely used free game engines like Unity or Unreal take care of the heavy lifting when it comes to starting your own project. Combined with access to resources such as SteamVR, VRTK and Oculus VR SDK (to name a few), it has never been easier for anyone to start developing their own VR content.

The majority of VR experiences populating the market are still very experimental in nature. They exist to briefly play around with interesting mechanics, a specific concept or the hardware itself – and there’s a reason for that. Unlike web design or traditional game design, VR has yet to find solid ground when it comes to interface, interaction and user experience standards. It’s hard to safely plan large-scale projects in such uncharted territory.

The unique blend of virtual and physical limitations that VR embodies is the main reason for this uncertainty. Developers must learn to take into account mental as well as physical strengths and weaknesses of their users. Any application developed for VR needs to be easy to use on both aspects.

Physical limitations

The duality of avoiding mental and physical strain at the same time already comes into play when talking about controllers. Different headsets naturally come with different hardware for interacting with the virtual world, and each setup has its quirks.

Samsung Gear VR is a mobile-based headset, and is limited to a set of very specific interaction possibilities. Basic interface navigation is the most prominent necessity for easily switching between different applications that generally offer short, standalone experiences. This, in turn, means that any compatible controllers must be incredibly simplified – easy and quick to find, learn and use. The headset itself features a touch-pad and home/return buttons on the side. Gear VR is also compatible with a small handheld controller.

Though unlikely, it is still possible to cause physical strain even with setups like this. Forcing the user to continuously keep their arm up for an extended period of time while using the headset touch-pad is one such example.

Samsung Gear VR and controller

Samsung Gear VR with home/return buttons and touch-pad on the side, as well as the compatible handheld controller

On the other hand, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive come with much more complex motion-tracked controllers. These tend to feature ergonomic grips and accommodate more natural ways of interacting with the virtual world. Controllers such as these allow for a lot of customization possibilities, which is great for building robust and diverse experiences. However, this comes at the price of a much steeper learning curve for the average user.

Remembering more than two or three actions that are mapped to different gestures or buttons is especially overwhelming for first-time users. This means that introducing all the possible interactions to a new user should be a gradual process, which can make it difficult to efficiently show product demos at public events.

Controllers for Samsung Odyssey, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift

Controllers compatible with Samsung Odyssey (front left), HTC Vive (front right) and Oculus Rift (back) respectively

Watching out for physical strain is also important when it comes to designing user interfaces. Avoid, for example, placing often-used menus at the very top of the screen. Users will experience discomfort and pain if they need to look high up for extended periods of time. This is especially true for the much heavier room-scale headsets such as HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

A button in VR positioned high in the user's view

In this case, the button that’s positioned high up is used to quit a 360° training sequence before completing it – something that is used briefly and less frequently

Many people also have limitations to their freedom of movement. An application that requires frequent wide-angle turning needs to provide a way to do that with the press of a button. This, for example, facilitates people in wheelchairs that aren’t able to turn around with their hands full.

This and the examples beforehand might seem like very specific cases, but the conclusions regarding them come from experience and provide an insight on the sort of human limitations that need to be kept in mind.

The second part in this blog series will continue with the possible ways of causing mental strain in 360° VR and how to avoid it – read it here

Thank you for reading!

Harri Lammi