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January 3rd, 2017

Are VR and AR the Next Crucial Design Tools?

Are you ready for virtual reality? Well, stand by, it’s about to be mainstream. Headsets like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Sony Playstation VR are poised to bring immersive experiences to a wide audience. Advanced augmented reality devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens also promise to blend reality with an infusion of useful and interesting functionality. As the market begins to respond and adapt to the entertainment potential of these technologies, benefits in other sectors are evolving as well. Here are a couple of interesting frontiers where virtual and augmented reality might affect how your team tackles the next development cycle.

The Path to Better Design Communication

Does a good idea have value if there’s no appropriate audience?  Shepherding an idea from napkin sketch to innovative product requires the buy-in, support, and understanding of many individuals. This pipeline only works when there’s effective communication.

In fact, documenting and communicating product ideas takes far more time than actually generating product ideas. Any technique or technology that shortens the distance between communication and understanding will save critical time, money, and energy in the process to get your project to the next stage.

Here’s where virtual and augmented reality systems can make a big difference. Imagine the new ways you’ll be able to visualize, sketch, edit, annotate, and share three-dimensional information. Well executed simulations will make CAD and sketch data more collaborative and iterative, and thereby reduce the number of aesthetic prototypes needed to enter the market.

Several technology groups are already looking at virtual reality to change the way we visually communicate. Google’s Tilt Brush app merges sketching and sculpting by creating a virtual environment for 3D visualization. By using a handheld controller, users can draw strokes in open air creating a composition you can manipulate and walk around in.

Mental Canvas is another application being designed to add spatial context to sketches. By layering sketches in planes by depth and interpolating into animations, this tool transforms traditional line work into a 3D experience. While currently only available on traditional computers, the aim is to continue developing the system to be VR capable.

Microsoft’s HoloLens headset is targeting professional creators. By adding rendered objects and applications into a user’s field of view, Microsoft hopes to add a new and dynamic layer to the way we interact with and share digital data. Their promotional video demonstrates how HoloLens technology might streamline the development of a new motorcycle.

A Gateway to the Future of Ethnographic Research

Designers and engineers are best equipped when they have true empathy for their users and consumers. What better way to gain this than to have members of your team “walking in the shoes” of a user group. Photography, audio, and video are today’s standard media for capturing ethnographic research, but imagine subjects using a first-person 3D or 360-degree camera. A subject’s movements could be documented, played back, and experienced. With the ability to virtually step into the skin of ethnographic subjects, much higher quality data would be collected.

For instance, let’s say your team is designing a playground for small children. Imagine how beneficial it would be to use a VR experience to re-examine your concept on virtual ground, viewing it from a child’s height at full scale. What is revealed might enhance the perspective on the project, opeing doors to new ideas and more solid decision making.

Or what about a medical tool? The design could be experienced as a doctor one moment and as a patient the next. Again, these insights would empower product development teams to make smarter, more user-centric decisions faster.

There are new virtual apps being developed every day. It’s an exciting preview for those with a passionate desire to improve how they produce products or experiences. Now is the time to watch these emerging tools closely. Virtual and augmented reality systems will likely become the new standard of doing business. Those who are prepared to explore implementation of these new tools might well transform their processes while laggards are still playing catch-up.

If you’re curious about virtual and augmented reality hardware that already exists; check out these headsets:

HTC Vive
The Vive definitely feels gamer-centric, but with that comes a greater opportunity for widespread adoption. This unit currently supports the largest application catalog and has strong developer support, including Google Tilt Brush.

Oculus Rift
The Rift represents the first very high end VR hardware available to the public and is the incumbent to beat. They are supported by a AAA list of development partners, which means that Oculus is committed to pushing the capabilities of the medium forward.

Fove O
While the Fove is only available for pre-order, it promises added hardware capability to run some innovative applications. By including multi-point eye tracking into the headset hardware, the Fove opens doors to more immersive experiences like dynamic field of view and eye movement based soft interfaces.

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