Yes, Designers Need to Care about AR/VR by Aaron Faucher

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Aaron Faucher, a graduate of the Ivory Cohort, is a UX/UI designer focused on the emerging platforms of AR/VR. Follow him on Medium at @f0sh_.

 

If you’re a UX/UI designer, you’ve probably heard rumblings around virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) in recent months.

Maybe you heard Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion back in 2014. Or perhaps you know about either Microsoft’s ambitious Hololens AR project, or Google & Qualcomm’s stealthy startup Magic Leap.

Despite the buzz, many design professionals don’t realize that we’re on the brink of an earth-shattering development in the UX/UI field.

It’s the interface of the future

AR and VR negate the need for screens. Of any kind. Ever again. No monitors, no mobile, no laptops, no desktops, no TVs. In a world with AR and VR technology, all digital content can now be served virtually as a hologram or 3D rendering.

A 3D modeling application for the Microsoft Hololens platform. Source: Wired
A 3D modeling application for the Microsoft Hololens platform. Source: Wired

Augmented reality and virtual reality will be the future because the most influential and valuable tech companies want it to be. They ALL want it to be. If you’re skeptical, just look at some of the major investments that Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft have been making in the past two years.

As such, the first company to design an easy-to-use consumer AR/VR product will win big. Really big. Even bigger than Apple won with the iPhone.

UX/UI designers need to care about AR/VR because the same market forces that created the jobs we have today are about to make their next move, and it’s towards the post-screen world of AR/VR.

It’s a whole different game

If screens go away, where does that put us, the UX/UI designers? Our job description just got a lot more complicated.

Screens are 2D, and confined to a rectangular display. AR/VR is 3D, and can place digital objects anywhere in a user’s environment. This third dimension gives us new variables to consider when establishing visual hierarchy, developing affordance, and designing people-centered interactions.

With MozVR, Mozilla is adapting Firefox for compatibility with VR platforms. Source: MozVR
With MozVR, Mozilla is adapting Firefox for compatibility with VR platforms. Source: MozVR

Your daily design flow will now involve layout along the X, Y, and Z axes. Beyond color and typography, your style tiles will include studies on lighting, mass, and drag. Paper prototyping won’t work for 3D space – at least not in the same way.

Microinteractions will take cues from industrial product design. With the end of screens come the end of clicks, taps and swipes. Object-based 3D UI is manipulated by gestures like grasping, pushing, holding, tossing, twisting, and poking.

Responsive design takes on a whole new meaning. Today, we design for 3 or 4 screen dimensions. Now imagine designing 3D UI that responds to myriad changes in environment. Responsive AR UI must display appropriately in the user’s living room, in a public park, or in a cramped airplane seat.

You’ll have to learn new tools and terminology, too. Photoshop, Sketch, and CSS, say hello to Maya, ZBrush, and Unity C#. Vectors and fills, meet vertices and shaders. 3D design comes with its own established vocabulary, methods, and concepts, and UX/UI designers hoping to ride the AR/VR wave should get familiar.

It’s an incredible opportunity

If you’re anything like me, you got into UX/UI design because you care about how people interact with computers. You want to make digital experiences seamless, worthwhile, and pleasant for the people who use them – to help humanity to continue to cope with, and thrive in, an increasingly digital world.

AR/VR is a blank slate for UX/UI designers – an opportunity to imagine new ideals for the human-computer relationship. These platforms shed many constraints inherent in previous computing media, and come without the burdens of established UI patterns.

Consider a world where notifications sit in a box on your desk. Or where you read tweets at the bottom of your coffee mug. Or maybe a world without notifications and tweets at all. AR/VR is an opportunity to design these new worlds.

Google’s Magic Leap has developed a reputation for its imaginative visions for future UI. Source: The Verge
Google’s Magic Leap has developed a reputation for its imaginative visions for future UI. Source: The Verge

But we need to act, and soon. Like the “Start” menu and the mobile hamburger, once a pattern is developed, it’s tough to shake – even if it kind of sucks. The first AR/VR UI patterns that simply “work” have the potential to set low standards for the first decade of the platform.

Today, it’s largely developers – not designers – who are writing the book on UX/UI for AR/VR. This needs to change. Unfortunately, no one’s going to invite the designers to the AR/VR table. It’s time we step up and invite ourselves, before user expectations form around bad patterns.

Of course, it’s not yet time to drop everything you’re doing. Screens aren’t leaving us anytime soon, and mass adoption of AR/VR won’t happen overnight.

But don’t ignore the signs of the coming age. The forces that made you a UX/UI designer are already working on the next big thing.

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