The Oculus Rift is an ergonomic masterpiece. It fits over anyone’s face, aligning two lenses over every set of eyes. It spins two headphones over your ears, distributing a full pound of weight on your head. The bundled handheld controllers are equally impressive, creating the sensation of grasping real objects. And yet the Oculus Rift still hasn’t had its iPod moment–the design breakthrough that would allow anyone to use it without minutes of apologetic explanation, several micro adjustments to the straps, and the sacrifice of a few strands of hair.
Branko Lukic, a former lead industrial designer at both Ideo and Frog, who since founded Nonobject, thinks he can do better. His studio designed the hit Bluetooth speaker the UE Boom, which reimagined a rapidly obsolescent gadget as something that might age proudly, like an heirloom watch or jacket. And for the past eight months, as an unpaid side project for their own amusement, Nonobject’s designers have focused on fixing the pain points of VR and AR in a project called Airhead. Their goal? To make this new frontier “as comfortable as possible.” That includes improving physical comfort, increasing social acceptance, and rethinking the intuitiveness of headsets.
“As we look around, we see our industry is doing what it does time and time again. It gets into tech gadgets driven by technology, not thinking about the human,” says Lukic. “A ‘wearable’ is not just something you strap on your head. This project attempts to open the avenues, and inspire the industry, to leap forward farther than we have today.”
Nonobject shared its designs exclusively with Co.Design in the hope that the industry would steal these open-source ideas and move AR and VR forward. Note that they are not just concepts and renderings, but prototyped headset and controller bodies that can accommodate the Oculus spec. In other words, these ideas aren’t mere fantasy. They could all be feasibly mass-produced soon, if not tomorrow.
“[We wanted something] intuitive to put on. I don’t need prior knowledge or instructions,” says Malin Leschly, VP of design strategy, of these headsets. “I don’t need instructions on how to put on glasses or a watch. What we’re looking for is achieving the same level of simplicity.”
Nonobject’s first idea feels so obvious, you’ll kick yourself for not thinking of it first. Kepi is a VR headset built into a baseball cap. “It’s a hat–not just physical comfort, but emotional comfort as well,” says designer Kevin Kilpatrick. Self-explanatory by design, you slip it on much like a fitted cap, while adjustments on the sides ensure you can get a tight fit with the mask.
The idea has some similarities to the VR hoodie recently proposed by Artefect. It would be downright cozy to wear, if not in public at least at home. But what’s remarkable–and I didn’t believe until I saw it with my own eyes–is how instantly Kepi slips on a head, once fitted. It’s literally as fast as putting on a baseball cap. And as an added bonus? The headset’s weight distributes across someone’s entire skull, rather than the pressure point of a few straps.
Kepi is the most all-around comfortable headset Nonobject designed. It’s also constructed in such a way that the VR hardware could be slipped out as a module, allowing the cap to be washed. It would also create a whole aftermarket of Kepi cases, allowing you to personalize your VR headset much like your mobile phone.
All VR headsets go over your head. You need to lift them on and off, like scuba masks. It’s not impossible, but no one would call it preferable, either. It’s bad for your hair, and it makes you feel vulnerable.
Split is a VR headset that, rather than slipping over your head, splits in the middle to wrap around it. The actual eyepiece is cut down the center and attached by magnets (and, perhaps, a clasp as well for more active use). All you have to do is pull it apart and the headset comes off. And thanks to the fact that the Rift uses two lenses and LCDs, it’s feasible to crack those components right down the middle–at least for any VR headset that doesn’t require a full, single-piece phone inside.
Okay, so you don’t want a hat, and you don’t want split lenses? Fine, here’s a third better alternative to the old scuba strap called Spect. “Spect is our attempt to make VR a shareable experience,” says Kilpatrick. “As close to putting on a simple pair of glasses [as possible].”
Much like eyeglasses, Spect is fit with two spring-loaded temples that can wing out, then clamp onto your head. As opposed to resting their weight on your ears, however, they grasp the back of your skull with two large, spoon-like pads. It’s all a bit odd to describe, but putting Spect on takes moments. And as a bonus, the rear of your skull is not as sensitive as the top of your head or face, so the headset is easy to forget about.
Of course, comfort comes in two forms. There’s the comfort of being inside VR. And then there’s the comfort of seeing someone in VR. Serene is designed to be the softest, most approachable shape Nonobject could imagine for a VR or AR headset.
“It’s a sofa for your eyes,” says Lukic. “This was an attempt, and quite good resolution, about minimizing all complexities of this objet. This is like the most minimal abstraction of angles and complexities that VR has.”
Wrapping a semi-rigid ringlet around your crown–similar to Microsoft’s Hololens–the eyepiece hovers and tilts into place on your face. And to understand just how far its pillowy industrial design goes, you need only compare it to Google’s fabric covered Daydream headset. Which looks more comforting? The Serene, any day.
Nonobject also looked at VR controllers. Grasp is its response to the lauded Oculus Touch, which attempted to mimic the experience of grasping real objects.
Without getting too into the weeds about the exact ergonomic and tracking considerations at play, Grasp encompasses two great ideas. First is that it actually grabs the upper half of the hand. This means you can do something impossible inside the Touch–actually throw a virtual object (without chucking the real controller across the room). “We had this Frisbee test,” says Kilpatrick. “We put the Frisbee test against all the controllers out there. You can’t do it. It’d fly away.”
These soft devices weigh on just the right part of your hand to avoid fatigue. To ensure a proper fit, their second great idea comes into play: All you do is pull down on a strap that runs down through the Grasp hardware, and they tighten.
“It’s almost like we’re creating the first tools in this new space. New tools out of stone,” says Kilpatrick. So “stone” made a great name for Nonobject’s proposed creative tool, a touch-sensitive . . . stone . . . you hold in your hand. “For this, we focused mostly on how you perform creative tasks in new ways. Sculpting. Video editing. This could be expanded into a whole range of tools.” Whereas the controllers for the HTC Vive are fit with triggers that make them feel more like guns, Stone, accompanied with an airbrush tool in your other hand, lets you draw intricate structures at a very granular layer.
Of course, the simpler design solution would be no controller at all. But Nonobject, playing with a Leap Motion gesture controller, found that was a bad idea. “We were all like, ‘of course, we don’t need a controller!’–only to learn that we do need something tangible in our hands,” says Lukic. “There’s no tactility in the air. You definitely need some tactility.”