Over the last ten years, I’ve designed digital products for every type of screen size and input, from mobile phones to twenty-foot interactive displays. While different screen sizes have their benefits and drawbacks, they all followed similar design fundamentals: a two-dimensional surface, constrained borders and click-based methods for input. Last year, our agency started designing applications and experiences for virtual reality. Within the first week, we realized that designing for virtual reality would be vastly different from any type of screen we’ve used before.
Our early design tests were unusable and content often felt “out of reach” for the users. Research into methods of designing interfaces for VR came up short, and most basic resources are still lacking today. The big players in VR — Google, Disney, Microsoft — all have different methods of interacting with objects and few strides have been made in text legibility or navigation.
The first experiments at the agency were for a client project, so we had to move quickly and come to answers that could work across device types. Our client was building a platform for the music industry to view 360° videos — concerts, music videos, interviews, etc — on both mobile and PC VR systems. We were tasked with creating the brand and the interface across these different systems. To create the interface, we needed to understand how people would watch videos in VR, and how they should interact with the application before, during and after the video plays.
Before moving into designing within virtual space, we sketched out all of the content we’d need on a given screen and found that the information would all be really light: titles, a little information about the content, and controls for the video. With videos and photos as the entire background, users didn’t need to read a lot of content to understand where they were — they just needed signs pointing them in the right direction. With such light content, we thought about the interface as more of way-finding signage akin to environmental or spatial design.
This model that interfaces within a three-dimensional space could be seen as posters, wall-art, or signs changed everything for us. We could place things around the user at different sizes, and let them look around the space to navigate the application just like navigating a large building or city block.