Virtual reality (VR) has been part of the public consciousness for decades, largely as a futuristic science-fiction concept. Over the past several years, VR technology has improved, but developers still face a number of challenges in convincing a wider audience to embrace it. Some strides have been made in VR development, but the products that exist today still have not achieved a user experience (UX) compelling enough to ensure broad public acceptance.
The Oculus Rift: Step Into the Game Kickstarter made headlines when it raised $2.4 million in 2012, showing there is considerable interest in a useful VR product. The Oculus Rift development kit and prototype helmet allowed independent developers to create their own VR video games. More than 9,500 individuals backed the project, and its success eventually led to Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift for $2 billion in 2014. Oculus Rift and competitors such as PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR, and the HTC Vive are available as comparable consumer products now, yet public adoption has been slow.
But why is this? Read on to discover the main 5 UX challenges the VR industry is facing.
At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, tech experts noted a slowdown in VR innovation and the public’s tentative response. Lisa Zhao, Co-Founder of Chinese motion sensor startup LYRobotix, told CNET, “Average users, they want the perfect glasses now.” Many consumers’ expectations have been set too high by fictional depictions of VR in popular culture, and these expectations are unrealistic for today’s products. “That’s not how technology advances,” Zhao says. Consumers are hesitant to spend considerable money on a product if they find the UX is immediately disappointing, so much work still must be done to bridge the gap.
Current VR hardware is often uncomfortable. Most commercially available VR headsets resemble bulky goggles or helmets. Complete audio-visual immersion is a key element of virtual reality, so certain design aspects may be unavoidable, but the ideal hardware should allow the user to wear it comfortably for longer than a few minutes at a time.
Bringing the user’s hands into the experience is also crucial to creating an immersive UX. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently shared photos revealing prototype gloves being tested that would likely pair with the Oculus headset. “We’re working on new ways to bring your hands in virtual and augmented reality,” he wrote. The gloves would allow the user to interact with the virtual environment rather than simply watching or listening to it. The user could draw, or type on a virtual keyboard, which suggests Oculus may be looking toward practical, everyday applications for the technology beyond gaming.
Once the user is equipped with a satisfactory headset and gloves, they are ready to encounter the user interface. Creating a UI that consumers find appealing and intuitive rather than off-putting is one of VR’s greatest challenges. The developer must find a way to draw the user’s eye to certain places and teach the user how to interact with the program quickly and easily. The visual and audio quality also must live up to the consumer’s high expectations, which will require time and likely multiple generations of VR tech.
The user’s immersion in VR can present physical problems in the real world as well. Users who are prone to motion sickness may have difficulty staying in the virtual world for more than a few minutes at a time due to the discrepancy in perceived motion and the lack of actual motion for the body. There also may be concerns about repetitive motion injuries and other issues that could arise from using VR gear for too long. Both the hardware and software must address these issues.
Even when the users have the equipment they like and an intuitive UI to use, what are they going to do with it? Some users are drawn to video game applications and escapist entertainment, but broader acceptance will require a much wider spectrum of applications. VR could be used in any number of ways: telecommunications for home and business, education, medical applications, and any circumstance that would benefit from allowing participants to envision a particular environment they cannot access otherwise.
Ultimately, the challenge is to meet and exceed the public’s lofty expectations. VR must transcend its common perception as an expensive, high-tech toy. If enough people can be convinced of its usefulness, the potential applications are nearly limitless.