Despite the news of Facebook’s drop off in users recently costing Meta US$220 billion in market value, the reality is that Facebook still has 1.929 billion users (down from 1.93 billion). Though twitchy investors were quick to pull the trigger, Facebook is undoubtedly still a force to be reckoned with and its push towards the metaverse remains strong.
And it’s not just Meta. Big players like Microsoft have affirmed continued support of their AR device, Hololens, and Apple – who has been steadily acquiring a bevy of AR and VR experts – is also rumoured to be conjuring their own magical glasses for a launch as soon as late 2022.
With Nvidia’s omniverse plans in the works and Microsoft’s CEO set on building the metaverse through gaming, AR and VR tech are having their moment. With such a focus on this technology, it's about time we take a look at how it should be designed.
We all remember the wild west of phone designs in the 90s and the hellscape of “smart” phones in the aughts, so let’s try to imagine a world where AR and VR have truly become the norm and see how living in an augmented world might be different…or even better.
Designing hardware that you’d actually want to wear
Let’s face it: all the hardware that’s supposed to usher us into the metaverse is still very much far from ideal. They’re bulky, expensive, and battery life still poses a big issue for consistent, regular use.
From the Hololens to the Oculus, these bulky blocks on your face are a far cry from what we’d actually choose to wear on a daily basis—like the E.D.I.T.H. smart glasses from Spider-Man: Far From Home. Google Glass, Ray-Ban Stories, and Amazon’s Echo Frames all attempt to introduce smart technology into glasses but are for all intents and purposes, not AR glasses.
An area that might prove promising is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces that connects smart glasses to phones to provide an AR experience. Its touted use case remains the same, with intractable virtual objects, real-world overlays, surface mapping, but the connection allows builders to make glasses that aren’t too awkward and heavy on your face.
Like smartwatches that rely on smartphone apps, the AR glasses could potentially be powered by our phones and look a lot less geeky, i.e., smaller glasses, more styles, and more flexibility.
VR headsets have got their work cut out for them though. Even in the futuristic world imagined in Ready Player One, people are still hooked up head to toe in gear just to enter VR. The design for VR headsets has more or less been the same since the Nintendo Virtual Boy released in 1995, and while there have certainly been improvements, it’s still not truly feasible for day-to-day extended wear.
We don’t know what designers and engineers in the future may come up with, but with what’s out there right now, most people wouldn’t voluntarily strap an oversized heavy block to their head for hours on end – to work or play.
Maybe the best VR design for humans is to not design a VR headset at all but focus on a better screen experience? After all, what is VR but a screen strapped to your head?
There are already 360 experiences like the virtual tour of the Lourve or Orlando Sea World. What’s missing is a better way to interface and engage with them. For now, we’re stuck clicking and dragging on a 360 image or video.
Designing software that you can understand
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
When the mouse cursor debuted in 1968 with the graphical user interface, a new method of interacting with computers was born.
The mouse was your “finger” moving through the screen, and people had to learn to understand the different interactions that could be done with this new finger. The first User Experience (UX) was born: hover over a clickable link and your cursor would turn into a hand. Hover it over text, and it’ll change into the text pointer.
In the early aughts, touchscreens on devices were slow and imprecise. On most devices, like Nokia’s first touchscreen device, scrolling was not yet a thing. Instead, we had a navigation bar for scrolling up or down. For those who know, positioning your nail precisely at the tiny corner of a screen was a unique kind of torture.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It wasn’t until the iPhone’s inertial scrolling and capacitive multi-touch screens that manufacturers realised how touchscreens on phones should be done. Today, gestures on a phone come naturally and you probably wouldn’t think twice about interacting with a screen by flicking at it.
When creating UX for the future, one must always remember the principle of affordance: the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used. The virtual world has an infinite amount of space and infinite possibility for creativity, but if users do not know what can actually be done, they’ll likely bounce off quickly.
In a virtual space with location-mapped objects that float before your eyes, a UX designer has to “Onboard a user” according to Sarah Tan, a designer who has created digital experiences for the likes of Meta, Google, and NASA.
Onboarding is more about giving the user an experience of how to interact in AR or VR and less about teaching. If you need the user to turn the phone around, maybe hide something a little off screen, just out of view which forces a user to turn.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Take for example the design of Super Mario Bros.
for the NES in 1983. Subtle design choices teach you how to interact with the game: you start the game on the bottom left of the screen with negative space to the right encouraging you to move forward towards the right. The big boxes with question marks encourage you to jump up towards them and the angry mushroom hints that it's an enemy. Without a single tutorial, the first two frames of Mario teaches you the fundamentals – you can only move right, jump up to complete most tasks, and avoid enemies.
When thinking about the software in particular, Satya Nadella put it succinctly in an interview with the Financial Times:
“Metaverse is essentially about creating games. It is about being able to put people, places, things [in] a physics engine and then having all the people, places, things in the physics engine relate to each other.”
Games have been bringing people together into a virtual space to interact since the birth of the internet, so when approaching the democratisation of a virtual space, games have an upper hand in creating immediate and plain interactions.
Designing for everyone
The ultimate measuring stick for a device’s adoption is this: will my grandma or grandpa buy it too?
Televisions, smartphones, and computers have already passed this test because of their inherent appeal and usability. Anything that offers less than an essential experience is not going to receive wide adoption.
In that vein, AR and VR devices are still prepping for the test. Until they’re designed to be optimised for wide usability and become an essential for everyone, the virtual hype surrounding Silicon Valley may amount to not much more than something we’ll look back and laugh at decades down the line.
Cover Credit: Iryna Veklich via Getty Images
Writer | Marcus Lee
Marcus is a failed accounting degree graduate, three-time lowest performing employee letter recipient, and father of two. His life motto is: You can't kill what's already dead inside, but keep trying. Air your grievances at him (his ex-bosses surely have) at @markuuslee.