XR Tips and Hacks
“You can measure a creative work by the size of their rubbish bin”
Ok… so you want to make an innovative and amazing creative experience using virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) or anything in-between (XR). How do you do it? Everyone has their own way to make things, but here are my top tips for how to make a successful and innovative work using any of the VR/AR/MR/XR technologies.
1. Clear artistic vision
Have a clear artistic vision for your piece. There are many decisions and compromises to make in developing an XR work and having a clear message or vision will make this decision making simple. Does it serve the grand vision? If not, then scrap it.
2. Collaboration from inception
XR is a truly interdisciplinary medium and all elements should work together to portray your grand vision. All elements of storytelling, visuals, sound, haptics, physical movement, interaction should be tightly integrated to serve the grand vision of the piece.
3. Don’t be precious
You can measure a creative work by the size of their rubbish bin. Real innovation is a trial and error procedure. Most of your ideas will not work. A successful project will have about 100 good or innovative ideas behind it and 95% of them will end up being scrapped. Don’t be precious and hold onto something that isn’t working. It might be a great idea that just doesn’t fit the current project. Tuck it away in your bag of tricks to consider for the next project.
4. XR is not film
While more established mediums such as film, tv, games and radio might have distinct rules or guidelines of production which have been honed over many decades, XR is a new medium which is yet to be decided. This is why it’s an exciting medium. But don’t be complacent and think that just because you know film, or you know games… that you know XR. This thinking will lead to works which are better suited to film or games and misses out on important opportunities offered by the medium.
5. Interaction design beyond gaming
XR works aim to take you to another world. The way humans learn and understand the world is through exploration, action and observation. Adding interaction to your work helps people to feel involved in the fantasy land you have created. So often designers look to computer games for interaction inspiration but this limits interaction to a series of simple button presses. The real world is much less simplistic than on/off interactions and incorporating full bodied interaction into your XR work will make it more engaging.
6. Design for movement
How do you want the user to physically move while they are in the experience? Do you want the to run, sit, crouch, jump, dance, lie down? This should be another factor that you can craft for the duration of the experience as you do with a visual design or music composition.
7. Utilise space
The space around us has a deep psychological effect on us. This should be used to craft an emotional journey. How does it feel to be in a tight dungeon, a corridor or a mountain top?
“XR is about feeling…. How does it feel to experience your work?”
8. Prototype and test often
Don’t just check your frame rate and look at your monitor and say… yep that all good. XR is about feeling…. How does it feel to experience your work? The only way to know is to constantly jump in and test your work.
9. On boarding
Think about how a user will use you experience. Is there a steep learning curve? Is the work going to be downloaded and viewed at home or is it to be shown off at special events. Both require a very different strategy. Make sure you know target audience and duration and design for that.
10. Only use XR if it’s appropriate
Don’t design an XR experience just because some new technology has come out. The technology has to serve your experience. If your experience will work just as well as a film then just make a film. You will save a lot of money and effort, make a better product and enjoy more established distribution channels.
11. Real world always beats XR
The digital world is appealing, you can take the user to fantastical lands and make them feel things or interact with things in interesting or even taboo ways. But the virtual world is just a poor representation of the real world. If you can do something with real world props, always use the real world item. It will automatically look, feel, sound smell and react correctly. Ie if you can include a real world button or switch it will be much more satisfying to use than a virtual, gestural or onscreen button. If you want the user to feel like they are swinging a baseball bat, give them a baseball bat.
12. Be social
It always fun to play a game together or even watch a film together. Think of how to add social elements to your experience.
“If people understand exactly what you are doing then you are not innovating.”
13. Innovate ambitiously
If people understand exactly what you are doing then it’s not innovative. Ok this one’s controversial and a tough one to get right because the very worst projects are an incomprehensible jumble of catch phrases and hyperboles. You don’t want that. But you also don’t want to pitch it to someone and they know exactly what you are talking about. If you are exactly on the same page as everyone around you it is because the book has already been written. Think a little more ambitiously.
14. Plan to Pivot
If you know exactly what a project will be at the planning stage and then execute it flawlessly, it signals something has gone wrong. You have probably missed the really interesting opportunity to actually innovate. These opportunities occur in the middle of a project when you try out your work and realise that “actually my original idea is ok, but this one side effect is really fun or interesting”. Don’t be afraid to get caught up in that moment and explore the unexpected. But this takes time, if you are on a super tight schedule you will be tempted to motor through these bits to your original boring goal. Plan to give yourself 30% extra time for play and pivot.
15. Touch screens are not the answer
Ok, don’t get me wrong iPhones and iPads are amazing devices but they are focus vampires. If you stick an iPad in the middle of an amazing XR experience, then 98% of users will just look at the iPad. We have been programmed that way by many years of instabooking and twitsnapping. XR is about engaging all of your senses in a fantastical and playful spatial experience. Chuck in an iPad and it reduces the whole thing down to an iPad app. Yes I’m looking at you apple + LEGO…. Such a missed opportunity.
16. Know the technology
You don’t have to know how many gigaflops or tetralumens are produced by a device, but you need to get intimate with your hardware. How does it feel to wear for an hour at a time. Does it work outdoors? Is it possible to interact with it while holding it? Does it transport you to another space or bring other elements into your space? Does it make you sick? Does it block out sound from the crowds of people around you? These are all important design considerations when making your experience. While technology will likely improve by the time you’ve made your experience, it will be a small iterative refinement rather than a fix all revolutionary improvement.
17. Presentation matters!
When designing a work for a gallery or public presentation, you will need to specific exactly what your experience needs to be successful. Size matters. Space matters. Ambient sound matters. Too many times I have been to an exhibition that where an XR work was interesting and well made, only to be installed in a tiny cramped corner where you can’t actually use it because there isn’t enough room or you will bump into people or there is too much sound leaking in. Will the VR tracking system work when installed back to back with other tracking systems? Does AR tracking working in the low light scenario of a gallery opening? Curators and gallery installers are experts on visual arts. Paintings, photos and videos works will be installed with impeccable care a thought. But they don’t know what your new fangled XR work is. No one does. This means that you as the designer and therefore expert of your own medium needs to liaise with the presenters and installers to make sure that it is presented in an appropriate way.