The Experience of Virtual Reality: First Steps

Recently Virtual Reality has seen a new renaissance. This, it can safely be said, is because the technology has finally caught up with the early visions. VR can be traced back to 1968 through the work of Ivan Sutherland and then through the 80's and 90's around the time when hypertext, cyberpunk and the world wide web where new and exciting. MIT produced the Aspen Movie Map, Jaron Lanier at JPL research experimented with data gloves and other artistic endeavors around the world that leaked into popular culture and very early gaming devices.

The peak of the hype was around the early nineties when I was studying Interactive System Design at Staffordshire University. This was the years the internet was not mainstream and when CD-rom multimedia was the leading interactive medium. Because of the cost of getting even a basic VR world running and the size of the equipment the virtual worlds remained within the walls of those with enough funding to make it worth exploring. So not on a new multimedia course in a ex-polytechnic in Stoke-on-trent!

By the mid 90s I was working in the new realm of commercial websites. For those used to multimedia the web was seen as a step back. Great for text but anything 3D had to be cover mounted on a magazine. I was working on film websites at the time and video had to be super compressed to make it usable over a modem. Not long into my career it became clear new forms of interaction were needed. Three contenders came along roughly at the same time: client side Java, future splash (renamed Flash after Macromedia bought it), and VRML. A few freelancers where unsure which way to go and those that went the flash route picked the right route for the next fifteen years. I did do some basic flash (basic games for sites like Independence Day) but VRML was more interesting and Sun gave me a bit of time to create a virtual version of their 'sun truck'. I spent some time doing this after learning VRML over a weekend and created a world a user could walk around, using a web browser plugin, and interact with doors etc. And that was about it. The early language had compatibility issues, was time consuming to code (even with some help from export tools for 3D studio) and had no real commercial benefits. I stuck to being a web monkey!

That was about twenty years ago and I watched with interest as first the Oculus rift came into public view and others started to get into the game. The rest you'll be aware of. We're now seeing a new virtual reality gold rush. There is a big demand for VR developers who can wrangle Unity 3D, currently the best tool for creating VR experiences, and there is some exciting chat about VR and User Experience.

I've started by using the Galaxy S6 the company I work for, Photobox, provides my the app work I do and buying a Gear VR for eighty quid. I don't quite know what I was expecting but I was blown away by the results. Sure it's a bit blurry and there is a definite 'screen door' effect as the resolution of the screen can't handle being so close, but the smooth head-tracking and the ability of phones to deliver simplistic but engaging 3D environments is
something I could have only dreamt off as a multimedia student in the early 90s. Add in 3D surround videos and photos and it's hard not to get back upon the hype train.

In the next few months I'm going to be exploring the experience of virtual reality, learning as I write, building up a set of resources ranging from the leading VR sites and revisiting some old classic books I have on my bookshelf - such as 'Hamlet in the Holodeck', an early MIT book on how narratives work in virtual worlds.

This post will evolve over the weeks. Please leave comments, suggestions of resources and feel free to twitter me @stewdean.

Quick addition: I'm not the only UXer getting into VR, not by a long shot. I hope you're one of many as well. Shortly after writing this I found that Max Glenister, who was building an excellent Github resource on on UX/UI and VR has now built a new site: Please visit his site. I'll still be building out this series, learning as I go.


Viewing virtual worlds: where we are with VR displays and where we are heading.