The Oculus Rift and User Experience

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
October 21, 2013

I recently attended the Eurogamer Expo, which gave me a chance to look at what was new in the world of gaming and play with some of the Cool New Stuff coming out over the next year. In addition to playing with the Xbox One—which was disappointing—and the PlayStation 4—which, though interesting, was underwhelming—I also had an opportunity to use the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset. I like new, cool hardware. Occasionally, I’m disappointed—Leap Motion, I’m looking at you—but every so often I find a gem, and the Rift is one such.

A few gaming stands at the show featured the Oculus Rift headset. Most of these were high-definition headsets. But the queues were around an hour long, and while I am keen and dedicated, there were better things to do with my time. So I tried a standard-definition headset that a university was demoing.

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The Oculus Rift started life as a KickStarter project: a hardware hacker named Palmer Luckey had been collecting Virtual Reality (VR) hardware. You may remember VR: it was big in the 90’s, with all sorts of high-end, high-cost rigs under development that promised true immersion in virtual worlds. At the time, the idea of a virtual world was captivating to many people. The media were still using phrases like information superhighway to describe the Internet, and The Lawnmower Man had brought VR into the public consciousness. Some of the VR systems that were available then were hugely expensive and elaborate, but their value eroded rapidly—like that of all computing hardware. Luckey described finding one such headset for $89 on eBay—a headset whose original price was $100,000.

Much of the investment in VR kit came from defense funding at that time, so the price of VR headsets was less of an issue than it otherwise would have been. Size was a bigger issue. The technology of the time didn’t lend itself to being small and nimble. Some headsets were huge, requiring elaborate rigs to prevent the user getting neck strain and limiting the headsets’ potential for home use. There were brief forays into the commercial market—most notably by Nintendo in 1995, with its Virtual Boy headset. Because of its high price and the discomfort users experienced when wearing it, the Virtual Boy was a commercial failure. It was also a technical failure: a lack of head-tracking capabilities meant that players could not truly immerse themselves in virtual worlds, limiting the sense of a being in a virtual world.

However, much of the hardware that is necessary to make VR a workable and cost-effective proposition has become much more accessible over the past few years. With the rise of smartphones, high-quality small displays, accelerometers, and other hardware that is necessary to make VR effective, prices have come down, while at the same time, the devices have become many times more capable.

Oculus Rift initially aimed to raise $250,000 in venture funding, to create a number of developer kits. It beat that goal by an order of magnitude, raising almost $2.5M. Overall, Oculus VR has raised $16M in funding, and it is one of the most successful and eagerly awaited KickStarter projects.

At the Eurogamer Expo, I experienced a standard VR demonstration: a medieval rollercoaster with big drops, radical shifts to either side, and broken or missing tracks. (You can see the demo on YouTube.) The chap using the headset before me was clearly affected by the experience. He was clutching his seat so tightly that his knuckles were white. So it was with a little trepidation that I sat down and strapped on the headset. My first impressions were good. The headset is lightweight, and while I’d probably have concerns about wearing it for an extended period of time, it would be comfortable for at least half an hour. Even on an early release, standard-definition headset, the picture was clear, and the sound quality was good.

The demo provided an interesting experience. I enjoyed the sense of immersion, and while at no point did I feel the need to grab the seat, there was an almost visceral sensation from my brain, telling me that This is not right. There’s something wrong here. The ability to look around using my head as a controller is incredibly powerful. While I usually dislike using the term intuitive in relation to user experience, it’s clear that being able to look around so naturally, without using any controls, is intuitive.

As a piece of technology that delivers a user experience, the Oculus Rift has a huge amount of potential to affect users at a deep emotional level. It has a much greater ability to trick the brain into feeling that something is real. (I use the word feeling rather than thinking because the experience largely bypasses conscious thought.) While some UX professionals have talked about Persuasion, Emotion, and Trust (PET) techniques, here is a technology that can really trigger emotional responses. Much of the ability of the Oculus Rift to deliver on this promise comes from removing an interface layer between the user and the experience.

Focusing on a particular element of the virtual world is a simple matter of the user’s turning his head. While this is just a small thing in itself, the VR approach also removes the need to have separate controls for looking at things, and it filters out the distractions of the real world. It would be interesting to understand how much of an impact this latter capability could have on people’s ability to concentrate when working in a virtual environment, in comparison to a conventional, screen-based approach to computing.

The potential for virtual reality is much broader than just games. Although, if you swap the term games with simulations, a host of applications opens up. The somewhat predictable first-person shooter genre becomes much more like a military simulation when it becomes immersive, with a genuine sense of fear affecting a person’s responses. VR has potential uses in therapy, too. People recovering from severe burns have been able to reduce their pain medication by experiencing simulated icy environments in VR, tricking the brain into feeling the cold. It might also be possible to treat phobias. The sense of immersion and the gut reactions that people feel inside a VR environment could induce phobic reactions to the sources of people’s fears with greater safety than in a situation where the exposure was genuine. By combining VR with a Kinect-like motion-tracking system, athletes could improve their performance in sports—both physical performance and their ability to cope with mental pressure.

The Oculus Rift presents UX challenges as well as opportunities. People must be able to interact with a computer while wearing the headset, without their being able to see the device they’re using to interact. So they can probably use gamepads, mouse devices, and a limited number of keystrokes—assuming users can feel where their fingers are on the keyboard—but a lot of controls would not be workable.

When designing a visual interface, we must keep in mind that people are much more susceptible to motion sickness when wearing a VR headset than when looking at a computer screen. The basic premise of the game Mirror’s Edge was that a gamer was running free through a city, jumping between buildings. It was necessary to tone down the realism of movement in early versions of the game to prevent players from feeling ill. However, people do acclimatize to VR headsets. Regular exposure enables the brain to ignore a lot of the effects. Nevertheless, what developers and designers need to consider encompasses not only what the system presents to the user visually, but how the user’s brain interprets that information. Because a VR experience is much more visceral than a regular experience with a user interface, it presents unique challenges. 

Director at Edgerton Riley

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. Peter is a Director at Edgerton Riley, which provides UX consultancy and research to technology firms. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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