XR Expectations | Users expect the expected
Updated: May 5, 2022
XR Expectations Part 1
In this series of posts, we're going to be looking at one of the most (possibly the most) important considerations for anyone working in Immersive Design - Expectations.
The most important lesson any Designer can learn when approaching a VR, MR or AR project is that achieving a state of immersion and 'believability' always comes as a result of meeting, and hopefully exceeding, your user’s expectations. In fact, expectations are an intrinsic part of the magic trick that XR conjures, and they seep into every aspect of the design and development of an experience, even if their importance may not be explicitly obvious at first glance.
When tutoring new XR teams, we have always led with a simple maxim: Always give the user what they expect. For Enterprise developers this makes sense straight away; Enterprise applications for immersive technologies are always focused on streamlining the workflow and adding value to established pipelines and processes. Developers working on Enterprise apps actively seek to understand the existing work flows of their clients and see where they can offer more elegant and useful solutions as replacements for part or all of an existing practice. As a design approach, they will actively avoid impacts on productivity where possible, so they design software to be as intuitive and familiar as possible to their users. And intuition and familiarity come from past experience and established practices that are already familiar to their users. In other words, they’re designing their apps to meet their users’ expectations as successfully as possible.
For creative developers working in immersive technology, though, this often comes as something of a surprise. In their world, they seek to give their audiences the unexpected as much as possible. Narrative twists and turns are gold-dust to storytellers. Innovation is the lifeblood of videogames. Why does designing for XR mean we should suddenly give users what they expect?
Unlike film, literature, comics, theater, TV or videogames, our new immersive technologies haven’t yet established their identities or identified which structures work best for their audiences. When we view a show or a movie, we do so from atop a solid framework of how those mediums work; one that we have built over a lifetime of interacting with TV and movies – even if we don’t realise it. There are a million opinions on what the best storytelling structure might be, but storytelling as an art form has matured over many centuries and we now understand a great deal about how to create characters and narratives that resonate with audiences. The various recipes of screenwriting out there don’t give screenwriters a fool-proof formula for success, but they have gathered enough wisdom from them that they can at least predict what proportions of ingredients served in what order might taste good to audiences. The artistry of screenwriting isn’t often evidenced in unusual structures, rather it is seen in the ways a work can twist and fuse those ingredients in ways audiences don’t expect or haven’t experienced before.
Every story we experience is placed in a context formed from our past experiences with stories, and even if we don’t always consciously recognise the rules of the medium, we’re all experts in consuming stories through movies and TV, and we can all recognise when a character arc isn’t satisfying or when a story feels rushed or unfinished. We’ve seen other movies and TV that were more satisfying to us, and that gives us context for what we should expect.
Interactive XR mediums are still very young, and we’re collectively only just figuring out what structures will work for our audiences for VR, especially where the creative focus is the aim. MR and AR, where the experiences are about bringing the fantastic into the user's real space are arguably less mature, and have more challenges still to solve. They're all mediums without a context to call their own just yet. As such, when immersed into VR for example, new users look for a frame of reference of what they’re experiencing, and almost always tend to frame the experience in the context of real life. Our hands and head move through empty virtual space exactly as we expect them to. The world (usually!) obeys the same rules we’d expect in real life – a flat horizon, consistent gravity. These are two very strong cues that we should expect things to behave like real life, and we extend those expectations across the simulation. In essence, this is the reason we might drop our controllers on a virtual desk that doesn’t exist, or walk around a virtual table that we could just walk through. Interacting with the real world has always had a set of firm rules that we don’t question – we always walk around tables, we can always confidently place an object on another object. Whenever we’re immersed in VR and forget ourselves, it’s easy to find ourselves being led by our real-world expectations, because we as individual users haven’t yet built equivalent expectations and context to frame this moment in a different way.
These expectations are a blessing and a curse that hit every aspect of VR design. Why do some users feel discomfort and cybersickness when they’re driving a virtual car, for example? It’s for a lot of technical reasons, but ultimately, they’re all aspects driven by your expectations. What that looks, sounds and feels like in VR is simply not a 100% match with your expectations of driving or riding in a real-world car. Visually it might look like you’re driving a car, and sonically it might sound like being in a car. But as convincing as these elements might be, all the other sensory inputs that would come packaged along with that are missing. We don’t feel accelerations or decelerations. We don’t feel the movement of the car and the surface of the road through the seat and the steering assembly. We don’t feel the lateral G’s as we turn a corner at speed. Anyone who’s driven or ridden in a car will be familiar with a package of sensory inputs that collectively provide the experience of driving. I like to think of this as an ‘expectation model’, and as a designer it’s vital to consider that every aspect of your virtual experience carries such a package of expectations about how that object, event or person is going to act and react for the user.
In the early days of hands-in-VR, we saw the first learnings of how users should interact with objects start to emerge. The obvious thought was that users should be able to pick up and manipulate virtual objects just like they do with objects in the real world, able to turn and examine them from every angle. Early VR work with objects often felt clumsy and unintuitive, users spending an unnatural amount of time getting an object held properly in our virtual hands in a way that, in real life, we would do naturally and without thinking. Anything with rudimentary finger location would have a terrifically difficult time mangling fingers against objects as users tried to respond and adjust to visual feedback that didn’t marry with their intentions or what their real hand was doing. A user reaching out to grab something wouldn’t get the result they’d come to expect from a lifetime of picking up and manipulating real world objects.
So early developers quickly adapted and learned to ‘snap’ objects into the user’s hands when grabbed, so that they would adopt a natural, useful orientation for the player to make use of the object. Grab a gun in a VR game, and these days it will always appear in your hand ready for use, pointing in the right direction and held in a way that fits with your expectations. Play a little with such an object and you’ll find the limitations and compromises that have been made so that your expectations of how it looks and feels to hold a gun have been satisfied – with a real gun you could just as easily grab it by the end of the barrel or the bottom of the stock, but most virtual guns will only let you hold them one way. While designers sacrificed the flexibility the earlier systems promised in terms of letting you hold an object at any angle, they gained a much more immediate and useful interfacing that feels more natural because it more closely, and immediately, satisfies the user’s immediate expectations.
And this applies to any interaction in VR – whether it’s meeting a character, sitting at a table, riding a vehicle, pushing a button or locomoting through the world – all of these activities carry a package of expectations for the user, and the VR designer’s responsibility is to deliver on as many of the most important elements of that package as possible. If the designer fails to capture the essence of those expectations, they can expect it to impact on the quality and level of immersion. The severity of that impact might be very minor in some cases (“I’m not seeing myself reflected in that shiny surface”), but it can also have a major effect in other places (“Locomoting in VR makes me feel nauseous”) which in the worst cases can be complete show-stoppers for your users and make them want to exit your experience. Almost all of the comfort issues we can experience in VR are rooted, at their cause, in failing to satisfy our pre-existing expectation models. Every aspect of our immersion and sense of presence in the world is linked inextricably to how well it’s various aspects satisfy our expectations.
We’ll look deeper into some of these effects in Part 2 of this article.