Illustration by Kyle Webster

Augmented reality experiences are a special way of looking at the world, overlaying digital content onto your physical surroundings. This unique way of seeing things can drive powerful experiences, and has started to gain traction for both entertainment and utility. 

You may have played with augmented reality yourself through face filters or by playing Pokémon GO. Artists are exploring the new medium for storytelling and self-expression. AR can also be used to visualize 3D concepts like furniture or products. The technology is being adopted for education and training, and has been shown to improve retention when teaching spatial concepts. AR is also becoming commonplace for wayfinding both on phones and in cars. Augmenting reality is an exciting and fast growing industry, attracting people that are interested in creating a brand new type of digital experience.

For creatives designing in augmented reality (AR), it’s easy to get stuck behind your screen. But getting out of the office is extremely important to boost your creativity and, ultimately, create better experiences. Since AR is layered on top of the real world, I’ve found that if you put down your phone and walk away from your computer and look around the physical world, it can lead to new and useful insights. When designing for AR, you can improve your digital experiences with analog familiarity.

There is so much inspiration around us that can inform our AR design process. Here are three concepts/environments from the real world to get you started: table-top games, crosswalks, and handles. And remember, these are just a few examples of the many things we can get inspiration from in our daily lives.

Fitting into spaces: Table-top games

The spaces we each live and work in can be highly varied in size, layout, and furnishings – the dorm room of a college student is likely very different than spaces in a corporate office. As we think about designing AR projects, it’s important to consider how these experiences will fit into the spaces of our viewers. Table-top games can give us some good ideas for things to consider.

Sizing for everyday spaces

Think about the last time you played a table-top game; maybe it was Scrabble, Monopoly, or Settlers of Catan. Where did you play the game? If it was at home, it was likely on a coffee or dinner table. Board games are designed with common household surfaces in mind and they have a physical footprint that will work well on most tables. 

Six friends gather around a coffee table to play a board game.

This is a useful clue for augmented reality designers who want their experiences to readily fit on common tables in the home or office. Keep your scene’s total width to fit the size of typical coffee tables: a maximum of 36 inches wide, and at most 24 inches deep. If you make your experience too big, it may not fit or the contents may end up floating in mid-air off the edge of the table, breaking the augmented reality illusion.

Viewers’ point of view

In addition to the actual game’s footprint on a table, we also need space for the players. With some games like chess or Battleship, two people sit across from each other. With others, like card games or Catan, many players will sit all around the table. In these situations, more space is required around the table, which means that tables that are placed against walls won’t work well. 

A mother and father play chess while their child watches.
Six friends play poker around a coffee table.

Consider this idea of directionality when creating an augmented reality scene where you want the viewer to see different sides of an object or scene, but they may not want, or be able to, move around. For example, in an AR product viewer you may want the customer to see the back side of your product. However, if the back of the product is against a wall, they may not be able to move around to the back to view that angle. It would be hard to play Jenga if you couldn’t move around the table.

A family gathered around a coffee table playing Jenga.

Depending on the capabilities of your AR authoring tool, you could address this in a few different ways. You could have your product or item automatically rotate by itself like an in-store display, or you could include buttons to allow the user to rotate it to different angles. This is kind of like when a Scrabble player turns the board to face them so they can read the letters. You could also let the viewer directly rotate the object with a gesture on the screen, giving them the ability to view from any perspective without needing to get up and move. This strategy could be effective if you had an AR version of Jenga. 

A father and daughter play scrabble on the floor.

Wayfinding: Crossing a street

Most of us probably don’t think too much about a street crossing, but it’s a critical piece of interaction design for navigating the world. When we were kids, a street crossing was probably quite intimidating, and we were taught how to use them safely. Augmented reality feels like this for many people new to the medium – especially for large scale AR experiences that involve navigation or moving around. Here are some concepts from street crossings that we can learn from.   

A crosswalk signal sign prompts pedestrians to push the button to activate the signal.

Clear guidance

When was the last time you actually read the text on a crosswalk? We’ve become so used to this information that we barely think about it, but for someone unfamiliar with the system, this guidance is very important. Similarly, with augmented reality, most people are still unfamiliar with the technology and providing guidance is key to a good experience. 

This might be as simple as providing legible, easy-to-understand labels on the user interface, or some short text explaining how to proceed. For a more in-depth AR experience, you may consider taking the user through a tutorial to help familiarize them with the basics. Think about which moments are most important to guide the user, and try not to overload them with too much information.

An overly complex crosswalk sign with lots of text and icons.
An simple and easy to understand crosswalk signal uses one icon to indicate the pedestrian has right of way.

Wayfinding visuals

How do we know where to cross a street? There are usually lines or patterns that guide us. For navigational augmented reality experiences, like AR directions, using on-screen wayfinding visuals is fundamental. Keep your visual treatments as simple as possible in these situations since distractions can easily become dangerous while walking. Lightweight or transparent graphics will make sure users can clearly see the ground and avoid hazards.

Birds-eye view of pedestrians following crosswalk markings at an intersection.

Immersive soundscapes

When we cross a street, we use many of our senses. We look for cars and for the signal to cross. We also use our ears to listen for vehicles, and sometimes crossings have audio cues to tell us when it’s ok to cross. With augmented reality, sound is also a key part of immersion. Try using audio to make your experiences richer – music, sound effects, and voiceovers can all be powerful when combined with the visual layer. Keep in mind that some of your viewers may not have their audio turned on, so if sound is an important part of your experience, prompt them to turn up their audio to hear the soundtrack.

Leaning on familiarity: Handles

Handles are second nature to us; we instinctively recognize and use all types of handles every day. In augmented reality we can lean on that type of familiarity to help users learn how to operate things intuitively. The examples below are helpful to think about as we create AR experiences.

Pulling the handle of the rear driver-side door on a passenger vehicle.

Setting expectations

If you show someone an augmented reality car, they may well try to open the door by touching the door handle, but if the door doesn’t open, you’ve broken their expectations. This is an example of how the design of physical objects influences users in augmented reality and underscores all of the mental models that people bring to the medium. Keep in mind that if you choose to use metaphors and models from the real world, you may need to address those expectations through additional interaction feedback or extra guidance.

A woman trying to pull open a locked door.

Interaction feedback

To open a drawer in a kitchen, we see it, grasp the handle, and pull until the drawer is open. We feel the weight of the drawer, and see the drawer slide open. This affordance is intuitive, and the feedback is natural and second nature to most adults. In augmented reality we can create our interactive elements using similar techniques. A label near the handle that says “Pull” provides awareness of what is possible. Giving feedback at the moment the user begins interacting reassures them that the element is indeed interactive. This might be a hover or proximity highlight, an informative animation, or haptic feedback to mimic the sense of touch. And finally, if the handle responds to the interaction with visuals or audio, it gives the user confidence that they’ve succeeded.

Convenience vs. delight

Opening a door by pulling it continuously from the closed state to the open state might be delightful the first time in AR. But if an action like this has to be repeated in your experience, you may not want to so closely mimic the real world interaction as it can become tedious. Sometimes you may want to make an interaction more convenient than real life and use a simple screen tap or controller click to accomplish the same task. Just think of a garage door –  you’d much rather use the button on a garage door opener than opening and closing the door manually each time, right? Making tasks like this more convenient in AR  may also reduce the complexity of your experience, simplifying UX and engineering work.  

A man manually lifts open a garage door.

Keep your eyes open!

The field of augmented reality is growing fast, with increasing demand from many business sectors. There are constant improvements to the technology, and the medium will eventually evolve from mobile phones on to smart glasses and even contact lenses. It’s in these new spaces where the opportunities arise to define new paradigms and patterns – and using inspiration from the concepts/environments around you can help you come up with creative solutions to make great products.

I encourage you to keep your eyes open to inspiration from the physical world in your AR practice. Pay attention to how things move, how you use things, and how color and texture tell a story – it’ll likely make you a much better AR designer. If you find an idea that inspires your work, ping me on Twitter @kpimmel with your thoughts!