Use These 3 Lessons From the Past to Create the Future of VR

by Nicholas Robinson • March 11th, 2017

VR hardware prices are decreasing. New premium headsets are entering the market. 6DOF mobile is making its way to consumers. 2017 is laying the foundation for a VR content explosion that will usher in a new wave of VR developers.

Creating for a new medium, which is still in the midst of discovering itself, can be challenging. Luckily, we have history to help guide us. Designers and theorists like Marshall McLuhan, Jony Ive, and Raymond Loewy had to innovate within new mediums. We can use their experience to inform today’s virtual reality design process.

If you are thinking about joining the VR crusade, these three lessons, inspired by history’s greats, will help save you time and fine tune your thinking. Consider these early (and often) before opening your VR engine of choice.

Lesson 1 – The Message of the Medium 

“New media may at first appear as mere codes of transmission for older achievement and established patterns of thought.” – Marshall McLuhan, 1960

In the early days of cinema, budding filmmakers would simply film radio dramas. They used the “known” (radio) and overlaid it with a new technology. This holds with every medium since the invention of language. As the original media theorist Marshall McLuhan explained, any new medium starts with old functions but evolves into an entirely new form. “Printing made literature possible. It did not merely encode literature.”

VR content is in a similar phase today. It’s obvious to take an existing game genre (like a first person shooter), put it in VR, tweak a few things, and call it something new.

To avoid simply using VR for VR’s sake, look at the fundamentals of what you are creating to determine if it really warrants VR.

It’s certainly easier to NOT develop in VR; wider audience, easier development, more forgiving performance requirements. If you are going to go down this path, make sure you start with something that can only exist within virtual reality.

Force yourself and your team to ask “Why does this belong in VR?”. You’ll either realize the experience doesn’t belong in VR, or you’ll discover ways to further enhance the VR experience. As McLuhan said “It is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame.”

Lesson 2 – New, but Familiar 

Raymond Loewy was behind the logos for companies like Shell Oil and Air Force One. He also designed cars, buses, and even the space station. Everything Loewy created was at the edge of normal to the 1960s public. This was very much intentional.

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Loewy’s foundational design concept is abbreviated MAYA – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. Humans crave the familiar, but also want something new. With MAYA Loewy aimed to balance these competing desires and push technology boundaries right up to the edge of what society could accept. MAYA allows for evolution without consumer abandonment.

The Apple Newton was far too advanced and thus unacceptable. Consumers needed the iPod and then an iPhone before being able to accept the iPad. The same applies with virtual reality content.

IMG_9261

As a VR developer, you need to understand the technological edge of today’s audience. Then, have a vision for where you want it to go. While many in the VR industry want a Snow Crash or Ready Player One metaverse today, the rest of society is a decade away from being able to accept that. Instead, creators need to bring the audience to the technological edge with each release. The metaverse will emerge, as if it had been inevitable, from these gradual evolutions.

Lesson 3 – Create Comfort, then Move On

Skeuomorphic is a design term, often used to describe user interfaces, in which a digital object represents its real world counterpart.

Apple famously used a skeuomorphic design in its iPhone operating systems until the release of iOS 7 in 2013. Before that, everything that could be skeuomorphic was; The Notes application looked like a notepad. iBooks looked like a bookshelf. Game Center looked like a billiards table.

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Skeuomorphic iOS elements

Apple helped consumers get comfortable with touch screen phones by providing a direct correlation to an application’s real world counterpart. MAYA at work.

In VR, the skeuomorphic concept can be taken further to include skeuomorphic interaction. Players are delighted when their virtual interaction behaves as it would in the real world – be it a bow and arrow or coffee cup. When objects function in VR as they do in the real world the player becomes more immersed.

Job Simulator is the king of skeuomorphic interaction. Nearly every object functions as you would expect, from computer to coffee cup. The company famously spent over 800 hours just on their liquid subsystems.

As you develop for VR, which objects should you bring to life?

Apple abandoned their skeuomorphic design because “People had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons [anymore],” said Jony Ive in a USA Today interview. Similarly, certain interactions in VR may only be needed temporarily. Manually unloading the clip of a gun, grabbing a new clip, then loading it back into the gun is a slow and imprecise way to reload. Audiences may tire of such mechanics as the desire for deep interaction grows more sophisticated.

History shows that VR will unlock as something completely different than cinema or video games. VR creators and audiences will move past the ‘filming a radio show’ stage, but VR’s final form is still up for debate. The chance to shape a new medium happens once per generation, and thanks to the thinkers and creators of the past, this process will occur faster than it ever has before.

Nick Robinson is co-founder of the VR Studio RLTY CHK. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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  • VR Geek

    I was hoping Nicholas would have talked about this post featured image. That liner/exponential graph is an important aspect of this industry and one everyone needs to be aware of.

    • nicholasjrobinson

      It is very much a topic I plan on covering. With this article I am applying lesson 2 to ease everyone in to future articles 🙂

  • Very interesting post. I think some games that use biofeedback of the players brainwave patterns and heart and somehow shape the game universe to reflect that is going to be SUPER cool in VR.

    Using the pace of things, and the colour of things, and the gap that’s needed to be closed in between things as the Variables that change in accordance to (essentially) the emotional state of the individual.

    First generation games will probably be basic block games.

    And then, I can see FPS versions of this coming down the line where the player can slow down their experience of Time (enable different degrees of slow-mo) by intentionally calming their heart rate and shifting their brainwaves towards more of an Alpha state. I imagine we’re going be able to use a single-player Call of Duty like game to MASSIVELY incentivize the player’s development of inner peace.

    The more peaceful your state is, the more you can slow down time, the more of a monster you can be on the battlefield. Ooh. Getting goosebumps just imagining it. Legions of Peace-trained warriors. That’d be some shit I’d love to play.

    • nicholasjrobinson

      There are some people playing with using brainwaves to control virtual characters. I’m excited to see where that all goes! With your idea, keep in mind the concept of MAYA. What can todays audience tolerate?

      • Your post got me into a rabbit hole of VR videos and TED talks. Very exciting developments. I had no idea.
        This concept of MAYA is actually VERY new to me- I can see how significant it is then. I’ll keep that MAYA perspective in my mind in regards to my own fields of interest. Thank you!

  • LIV

    Super interesting article great read.

  • elev8d

    I would argue that moving from iOS6 to iOS7 was a step back. Calendar is still way more awful to use. Skeuomorphic design can be departed from, but it has to be done calculatedly and still retain elements that new users can work with intuitively.

  • Very very interesting. It reminded me an article about the California Roll, the sushi-roll made only with California foods that helped people in accepting the strange sushi roll that came from Japan.

    • nicholasjrobinson

      Wow thats a really cool example of MAYA!