The potential of VR in UX research
Experiences tend to stick in our memory and trigger emotions. This is true for every aspect of our life and explains why VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) have become such phenomena. There is so much potential in this technology - not just for games and entertainment - but also for work and business environments, such as in-house training and concept development.
Relevance of VR & AR in the area of user experience
As a UX Research agency, we see how VR and AR could potentially support companies in visualizing products and simulating use scenarios, to let users experience the product without having to actually build it. It can be used in so many different sectors – e.g. exploring your hotel and the surrounding environment before booking your trip, configuring your dream car and experiencing it in 3D before buying it, or having a look around your potential new home. Thus, we continuously try to gain more knowledge in this sector and figure out how UX testing can benefit from VR and AR technology and vice versa.
At the World Usability Day (WUD) 2018 in Hamburg, we learned about a new VR startup based in Hamburg, called the VRHQ (Virtual Reality Headquarters). The entity was founded to bring together different VR companies and provide a space for communication and development, as well as an opportunity to display VR capabilities and potential to the public. Prof. Michael Jonas (Professor for digital communication at the Brand Academy – Hochschule für Design und Kommunikation, Hamburg) is part of this community. He held a talk at the WUD 2018 about the usage of dark UX in Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality (VR/AR/MR). Using examples from experimental student projects, he showed to what extent VR designers can draw users in immersive interfaces to build a virtual experience beyond limits. However, he also outlined the limits and challenges when designing VR/AR/MR interfaces. This made us even more curious about the possibilities of VR, so we contacted the VRHQ and asked for a visit.
Tower Tag at VRHQ Hamburg
Our visit at the VR Headquarter in Hamburg
Even before the official opening, the team of VRHQ was happy to welcome us. We were able to immerse ourselves into different VR worlds: stepping into a 360° gondola flying over Hamburg, riding a roller coaster, playing a multiplayer game called “Tower Tag,” and (my personal favorite) attending a virtual concert which can also be attended simultaneously by other people, such as your friends. The concert additionally provided another layer of experience, by allowing people to draw shapes with their hands with light pens while listening to music. We were also able to get insights into the development process of VR environments.
It was interesting to see which methods were used to build VR worlds, e.g. 3D photo scans of real rooms, and how developers actually test their interfaces. It is common for developers to test their VR applications themselves and to forego testing with actual representatives of the indicated user group. Apparently, user testing has not yet become standard in the world of VR development. Just as it took quite some time for web developers to realize that it is not always sufficient to ask a few friends or colleagues for their opinion on their work, user testing is still in its infancy for VR. This is especially true for professional applications, e.g., medical training, where feedback from the users will prove invaluable.
Research for VR applications and it's challenges
However, having developers realize the value of user testing is not the only challenge. There are also some very practical obstacles. While these have been solved for ‘classical’ tests on a PC or a smartphone, there are new and interesting challenges when doing research for VR applications, such as:
- 2D video recordings or screenshots might not be sufficient to capture the full experience of participants.
- Interacting with the participants or asking questions can be tough when they are fully immersed in a virtual world. For example, the moderator cannot just grab the mouse to point something out on the screen.
- Results can be biased by participants being totally amazed by their (first) VR-experience.
VR and AR technology might become part of UX research
It is great to see how far VR has already been developed and what is currently happening in this sector. Even though right now it is still quite an effort to create VR-prototypes just for user testing, we expect this to change in the near future. As UX experts, we are excited to see that there is potential for VR and AR technology to become part of UX research in the future. Prototypes could potentially be tested in VR without having to physically build them; intended use environments for products could be constructed in VR, and at the same time users could interact with the real physical product. There are many exciting challenges awaiting UX experts in the world of VR, but one thing is certain: in order to implement VR in UX research and develop a great user experience, we have to maintain our open attitude and our willingness to learn new things every day.