Virtual reality (VR) has exploded in popularity over the last two years. Headsets are getting cheaper, and intelligent engineering is changing the industry every day. In sum, VR is making waves. It’s neat. It’s fun. It’s different — but it’s still weird.
VR is seen by many as a gimmick: a medium solely for one-off narratives and video games. And that assessment isn’t necessarily wrong. Not every experience needs to be so isolating. However, we’re likely to see widespread usage in fields such as healthcare, education, and the arts. In order for this to happen, we will need to address a long list of usability issues.
At the top of that list is the problem of latency. To truly fool our brains, the headset display must match our heads’ movements with near-perfect accuracy. While most systems bottom out at 30–40ms of lag, truly immersive VR can only take place at around 20ms. Furthermore, this delay can lead to nausea when there’s a discernible difference between the motion we sense and motion we see. Certain steps have already been taken to mitigate the risk of nausea, such as avoiding acceleration/deceleration and maintaining high framerates; but to completely eliminate this side-effect we’ll need hardware and software designed for lower latency. GPU performance has slowed since 2014, and we’ll need faster, more affordable cards to make VR practical.
Performance aside, perhaps the greatest challenge in virtual reality is standardization. For starters, each device manufacturer is experimenting with new tactile controls — from gloves and motion controllers to headset buttons and treadmills. This makes it difficult for users to switch between systems and applications, and burdens developers with decisions about control mapping and controller support. Device manufacturers will have to work together for the sake of the applications that run on them.
In terms of the software, interface design patterns are few and far between. For instance, a mobile app with three horizontal lines in a top left or right corner will lead to a menu. In virtual reality, designers are still figuring out which elements are the most user-friendly. Its still chaotic nature will require time and experimentation. Nonetheless, it’s great that companies are testing out new creative solutions, and we’ve seen some tremendous improvements over the last four years.
With a seemingly endless range of possibilities in this industry, it will be interesting to see which concepts stick and which don’t. It’s clear that the field needs designers, and there’s no time like the present to start learning and experimenting.