I love virtual reality as much as the next guy ( . . . who is also in some level of denial that he’s in his early 30s and still doesn’t sleep in a custom Lamborghini bed every night). I’m remarkably excited to see Oculus and HTC releasing headsets over the next month.
And yet the shortcomings of VR are still painfully obvious—especially when it comes to usability. That's why the design firm Artefact recently ran a thought experiment: How could it "fix" VR's design problems by the year 2020—a length of time short enough for the solutions to still feel near-future, rather than science fiction?
We've already looked at a few of the resulting ideas, such as a Yeezy Season 8-style hoodie with VR built in, for example. But Artefact also developed a lot of work that ended up on the cutting-room floor—10 ideas that each offer a different solution to the many problems facing designers working in VR. And that will undoubtedly be ripped off in the future.
VR headsets look strange, but we’ve been wearing masks for millennia—whether to protect our privacy or signal to others that we’re at play. So in a sense, our VR headsets should be masks. Artefact proposes a simple mask that would fit on top of your existing VR headset to embrace the oddity of wearing something on your face and to juggle this strange social space. Plus, we can always use more Star Wars merch.
Don’t like masks? Okay, fine, then oversized hoods could do the same job. Because fashion has already given us the ultimate "leave me alone" device. And it goes great with sweatpants, too.
Part of what’s isolating about VR is that people in the same room have no idea what you’re watching. But an external screen could signal this to make friends feel less excluded, and give parents a way to check up on their kids.
HTC Vive lets you walk around a room—until the tether runs out and the cord pulls at the back of your head, like you’re Neo leaving the Matrix. Artefact's solution? Just toss a computer onto your back. (It might get hot, but that’s the cost of a solid Ghostbusters throwback.) In all seriousness, though, this image demonstrates the greater idea of wearing our processing power and batteries. Your VR computer might actually look less like a PC tower and more like some badass padded motorcycle jacket.
But do we even need backpacks? Maybe not, since companies like Samsung already simulate VR through a phone. By piggybacking on the processing power of our phones and other wearables, Artefact imagines a wireless headset that runs on the power of devices we already own. Meanwhile, other wearables could augment the experience, like a motion-tracking smartwatch that becomes a form of control.
It’s very hard to connect to someone behind sunglasses. VR headsets are even harder. But what happens when VR is using the "pass-through feature"—essentially a video feed from a tiny camera on the headset that allows the wearer to actually look around the room without removing their goggles? You could make that experience social just by giving it eyes, says Artefact. And internal eye tracking could even show where the person was looking.
As an alternative to giving the headset eyes, what if a headset's goggles could become more or less transparent, in a gradient that could take you from full immersion to a completely social experience? We already have transparent displays, so it's an idea that's already technically feasible today.
Or imagine if you could wear a headset that could be easily removed. Placed on a mohawk-like track that sits on your head, it could stow out of the way like a window blind whenever you wanted to quickly remove the goggles, pausing the experience automatically for minimal intrusion upon interruption.
Anyone who’s put on an Oculus headset at a trade show—only to have it press against your face and ooze a bit of the last wearer’s acne medication onto your brow—will appreciate this one: VR headsets with replaceable face pads.
Here’s one better: a VR headset that can detach from pairs of networked headphones. So you could literally snap off an experience, hand it to a friend to share, but then still hear what’s going on while watching the story play out on TV.
It's already clear that VR will work very well to connect two people across the continent—but the bigger UX challenge will be connecting two people in the same room. If virtual reality can find its Nintendo Wii moment—where a whole living room of people can join in—we’ll only have more fun with the people who are both literally and figuratively closest to us.