Mastering the secret recipe for immersive experiences.

The virtual reality tsunami has swept us up sooner than we anticipated.
If you’ve read Ernest Cline’s captivating, Ready Player One or watched the Spielberg film, you can tell that technology-wise, it’s not going to be mere
sci-fi fantasy for much longer. With dozens of new experiences and video games springing up like mushrooms after an English drizzle and vast corporations investing millions of dollars into technology, it might just
be that virtual reality will become even more entangled in our lives.
The possibilities are endless, but with the great development of new technology new challenges may also appear.

Skyrim VR game map. Where are we? Why are we floating in the sky, Greybeards? (source)

Video games  — The Reality Challenge.

Video games have always been a form of escapism. Even before VR headsets, the design of the HUD and the user interface (UI) should thematically converse with the game’s conceptual world in order to make that link stronger. We want the user to feel that this is still part of the game even if the user clicked escape or wanted to pause the game; VR , the challenge is even greater. While you can always use the conventional menu and settings screen in a regular game, games designed for virtual reality may suffer from these screens if they are separated.

The challenge of creating a suitable interface that completely immerses the player can be such a challenge that it seems nearly impossible. The illusion of being in another world can easily be broken by something as simple as a traditional UI. Just Imagine being in a different world and seeing dinosaurs walk right in front of you only to have that very ‘real experience’ torn apart with the push of a button that hides everything and covers it with a traditional inventory menu that logically has no place in a game developed for VR. Although video game menus can have a rich UX it can still be a constraint
in virtual reality worlds.

Metro: Last Light has transformed the objective and compass into a wonderful interface (source)

Can we offer multiple, conventional in-game functionalities in VR without ruining the realistic experience?

Some non-VR video games have already solved their own “existential crisis,” even without being made for a virtual reality headset.

The Dead Space franchise — one of the best space horror games of all times, may have traumatized you for life when you first played it. This game offers a purely terrifying, claustrophobic (albeit realistic) experience; when I played it, I had to take short breaks every 20–30 minutes just to calm down.

But while a lot of games can be very terrifying, why did Dead Space succeed in making us so anxious?

Dead Space’s team of developers & designers took the creative choice of constructing a diegetic UI — meaning the user interface was a part of the game’s narrative — rather than the conventional non-diegetic menus we’re used to. By doing so, it gave players the illusion that everything was happening in real-time and as part of the game.

When you play Dead Space, you are Issac Clark; you can see your life vitals
on the back of your suit as they dwindle. Even the inventory menu (which can be complicated to create due to the fact that you may have many items inbound) was made as a hologram.

Issac’s health and stasis meter are shown on his back and change according to the damage he may receive. Dead Space 2 (source) Dead Space 3 (Source)

The holographic menu had another realistic power: it did not pause the game and enemies could still hurt you, unlike most a-diegetic inventory menus. Therefore, you had to be careful you better be careful where you decided to check what’s in your bag!

Buying something? Just make sure there aren’t any space zombie behind you. Dead Space 2 (Source)

Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 – Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic revamp – used the Pip-boy as an in-game interface. Not only could your character be seen wearing the Pip-boy on her/his arm, when clicking the action button to open the menu
a short interaction animation will occur to give the illusion that the character lifted her/his arm in order to check the map.

You can see the character’s hand adjusting the Pip Boy3000. Fallout 4 (source)

A nice addition to Fallout 4 was the power armor which (when equipped by the character) displayed a different HUD and gave players the feeling that they were inside a clunky mech suit capable of total destruction. 
Even the sound changed, giving your character the voice of someone speaking from inside a suit akin to Darth Vader’s first-person perspective in Revenge of the Sith.

Droplets of rain gather on your interface as you venture the Wastelands in a power armor. Fallout 4 (Source)

Another great example is Far Cry 2. When clicking on the map button the protagonist would hold a map while still seeing their surroundings; if the player wanted to tag something on the map they would hold the monocular. If someone would call the main character they will pull out a phone and use it. Sadly, in later games the diegetic UI was abandoned for a non-diegetic map.

Let me mark that on the map for you. Far Cry 2 (source)

What about games that have been converted to a VR version? The spectacular Doom 2016’s reboot for example, recently got it’s own VR version (or should we say “VFR.”) While the non-VR game received its own inventory, map and lore menus (with Mick Gordon’s epic music playing in the background) in the VFR version the HUD was turned into a hologram that floats around with the user’s head movement since our Doomguy is, after all, wearing a helmet. The settings, map and game menus have also been transferred into a hologram menu which seems to be a great and easy solution for futuristic space-themed games.

Doom VFR holographic map vs the regular map interface. Doom VFR (source) and Doom 2016 (source)
Floating HUD that moves with the headset vs a static one. Doom VFR (source) and Doom 2016 (source)

Diegetic UIs are extraordinary, challenging, and probably also very fun to design. They combine a real-life logic with a game universe logic together and binds them into an immersive adventure. The power to give your users a real-life experience while playing a video game challenges our real power as UX, UI and game designers. While in “old-school” non-VR video games there isn’t truly a ‘right or wrong way,’ I do strongly recommend using a diegetic UI when designing for VR.

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