Published on April 12th, 2018 | by Emergent Enterprise0
The Brain and Virtual Reality UX
You have never heard of William James Sidis but he may have been the smartest person who ever lived. Born in 1898, he had an IQ 100 points higher than Einstein. He invented his own language. He spoke eight languages – at age 6. He entered Harvard at age 11. Feeling inadequate yet? The life of William James Sidis is a testimony to the astounding potential and skill of the human brain.
What happens when we try and build an entirely new environment for a human to experience? The designers and developers of the new world come toe-to-toe with the brain. The biggest enemy of designing a compelling user experience in virtual reality is the brain. We take for granted how powerful the brain can be. All day long we are constantly processing all types of information: shape, sound, light, depth, movement, distance, contrast and so much more. We often can detect the slightest nuance or change in our environment in just milliseconds. In 2014, neuroscientists from MIT found that “the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds.” Scientists at Stanford say that information travels from our brain to our nerves through our body at speeds up to 268 mph. All of our senses and our brain working together is an incredibly impressive machine.
Designers and developers of VR solutions are dealing with the same efficient info processing system. VR places the user in a new context where the brain continues to search for all of the same environmental cues that are in real life. To recreate reality is a very steep challenge.
What are some fundamental approaches to providing a good VR user experience? Always keep these in mind:
- Provide a fixed point at all times. The brain is always using the horizon or other fixed parts of the landscape for stability. That helps send cues for essential needs like balance. That’s why if you are feeling motion sickness on a boat it helps if you can find a fixed object on land such as a lighthouse. Provide your user with a fixed point such as horizon or maybe a dashboard to have a sense of groundedness.
- Provide an appropriate space around the user. Are you indoors or out? In elevated places or below? Some people have fear of open spaces (agoraphobia) and others have phobias about closed spaces (claustrophobia). You need to understand your user and what their needs and desires are for your particular experience. A business training solution has different user experience “space” requirements than a first person shooter gaming environment (usually).
- Provide audio clues. A virtual reality experience should never be all about the visual. The brain processes sound to help understand its context. How far away are things both seen and unseen? How soft and loud are the sounds? Does the audio bounce of of any structures or planes in the environment? You can alert a VR participant to a problem out of the field of view with a warning buzzer for instance.
These are just three important aspects of lifelike environments that need to be considered when building virtual realities. But also keep in mind that a virtual reality does not mean photo/video realistic. On the contrary most VR experiences are not exact reproductions of real life. That’s an even bigger challenge.
The goal of a virtual reality UX design is to transport a user to another environment. When that happens, the human brain is there to participate and contribute to the experience. By taking advantage of its tremendous processing power a new world can take on a life of its own as long as it speaks the language of the brain. Just ask William James Sidis.