About four years ago I stumbled into the business of Virtual Reality (VR) as a User Experience designer. Valuable information about how to design VR experiences was sparse and mainly anecdotical. Today we're seen a tremendous increase of business' being interested in VR, corresponding with a high increase of quality in design resources. One thing I've noticed is that most of this content focuses on heuristics and guidelines. In my professional opinion, such frameworks fail to demonstrate the relation between VR applications and the specific use contexts.
Through this article I'll dive into a VR application we've designed and developed at Kanda for one of our clients Cobham Satcom. It's a great example on how basic design decision can be of high value when based on the use context.
Explorer VR – a marketing focused assembly tutorial
Our client, Cobham Satcom , designs and manufactures high performance satellite and radio communication terminals that perform in challenging and remote environments. Demonstrating such value at conferences or sales meetings can be challenging. Therefore, they needed the possibility to showcase one of their flagship products – the Explorer 5075GX antenna system – in a virtual setting. Cobhams potential buyers can now experience the Explorer through their own movement and learn how to unbox and assemble the satellite antenna in a realistic remote environment. This gives Cobham new touchpoints for their customers as well as gaining competitive advantages through a new way of promoting their products by letting the customers experience the quick and effortless set-up.
Virtual environment sets the stage
The virtual environment in a VR application has an immense impact on the user experience. Cobham Satcom requested a desert setting, since most of their potential clients would use the real product in such an environment. When users in VR have the possibility to look in all directions it becomes increasingly important to make interactable elements in the environment distinguishable. In this case we needed the user to focus their attention on the product and how to assemble it within a few minutes. For this reason, we needed the environment not to be a distraction, so the Color palette became our guide for visual attention. As the applications main function was in optimizing the branding and marketing aspect of Cobham we needed coherence between their own marketing efforts and the application that supports them. We wanted the user to associate the blue Cobham color with important interactions and information, so we used it for a floating information board and as a glowing highlight on interactable objects in the satellite antenna assembly process. We then used various shades of brown and dark muddy green colors for rest of the environment to ensure strong visual contrast.
Another way to help users notice important elements is to strategically place relevant content within the user’s field of view. For this application established a starting vantage point where the user can see the instruction board as well as the peli cases containing the satellite antenna parts - without turning around.
The explorer VR was developed for the Oculus Rift that tracks head and controller moment. This gives the user the ability to physically walk around in the virtual environment. A classic issue with VR applications is that users may forget about their physical space and thus walk into a nearby chair or wall, since those are not visible in the virtual world. A built-in guardian system shows a virtual grid when the user is approaching the edge of their play area (a predefined area in the physical world where the user can walk around without losing tracking or bumping into objects). The grid itself is however not always enough and it makes the user feel less immersed in the experience. For the Cobham experience we placed a dark ground tarp at the same size as our default play area, to conceptually guide the user about where to stand. Coupled with the fact, that most interactions can be reached from the starting spot we constrained movement to prevent user error without breaking immersion.
Many of our design decisions regarding the virtual environment may seem restrictive and less playful, but Cobhams target audience primarily consists of first time VR users who need to learn new interaction forms and act through an assembly scenario within a few minutes. As such we prioritized usability over a more explorative design for this case.
Simplified interactions improve usability
The core interactions in Explorer VR revolves around placing satellite antenna parts, locking latches and plugging in wires. Our emphasis on high usability for first time users made us focus on simplifying interactions. We achieved this by only using one button for each of the controllers. Most VR controllers have various input methods and are clearly inspired by console controllers made for gaming.
Experienced VR users may use these to carry out various actions, but for first time users it takes a while to figure out the mapping between each button and interaction. When the user first enters the Explorer VR experience, they are asked to press both index trigger buttons to start the assembly process. This way we ensure the user has found the relevant input buttons before it is required of them to carry out more complicated interactions.
Another way to simplify interactions is to lower the need for precision. The user continuously places parts of the antenna and plugs in cables - simply by grabbing and moving them close to their destination. Parts need to be rotated correctly before they snap into place, but we give some leeway in this regard. In this sense we lower realism and get higher usability in return. If the application had been designed for training purposes rather than as a marketing tool, we would likely have valued precision and realism over usability.
After we shipped the first edition of Explorer VR, we got the feedback, that it was too realistic. The user had to bend down to grab antenna parts, which can be difficult when wearing a business suit. We did not factor in this crucial piece of information about our target use group, which only further proves the need to really understand the use context when designing interactions for it.
As mentioned, we designed visuals clues through blue highlights to guide the user correctly through the assembly procedure.
The highlight fades in and out in a sequence to catch the user’s attention. When the user’s controller is within grabbing distance of the object, the highlight turns white to give feedback to the user that the controller movement is correct and that the button should be pressed. At Kanda we consistently use such design patterns to make it easy for the user to always find the next action, and to easily determine whether they need to move the controller or they are ready to grab or place a part the antenna.
In context of a sales demo, the consistent design pattern makes it easier for the spectating salesman to instruct the user, as the visual design helps clarify which part of an action that the user may struggle to complete. Immersive audio
In a sales situation the communication between salesman and potential customer is important. For VR showcases the salesman plays the role of instructor, to help guide the customer through the Virtual Reality experience. For this reason, we decreased audio levels. We used ambient sound in the form of wind and cicadas, to instill a sense of being in a desolate desert area.
For interactions we used recordings from the assembly procedure to better match material sounds. Mixed with haptic feedback from the controllers, these sounds add appropriate feedback which makes it easier for the user to know when an action has been completed. Feedback is extra important in VR interactions, since virtual objects does not have any weight. Multimodal feedback in the form of visuals, audio and haptics help the suspension of belief, and counteracts the lacking physical and tactile qualities of the virtual world.
Reusing the exact same audio clip again and again may also break emergence, in the sense that the user become more aware that they are in virtual world. In Explorer VR the user carries out multiple similar interactions in a sequence, such as tightening bolts or closing hinges. To make the experience more realistic we added a small random pitch to each action in the assembly procedure. Through this we use less storage as well as saving time on recording and implementing audio - all without breaking immersion.
Thanks for reading
I hope this case study provided valuable insights into how UX designers may tailor Virtual Reality applications to a specific use case. Design guidelines and frameworks are immensely useful as we continue to explore the seemingly endless possibilities of VR but keep in mind that context is king!