Illustration by Prabhat Mahapatra

Technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality aren’t just for movies and video games anymore. Companies like Sony, HTC, and Facebook have invested heavily in making these technologies more approachable and user-friendly, and games like Pokémon GO have brought them into our homes and onto our mobile devices.

As designers, it’s important for us to stay up to date on the human-computer interaction (HCI) technologies and platforms for which we may need to design interfaces or experiences. Let’s take a look at these two emerging technologies, how they compare, and some of the specific considerations to think about when designing for them.

While AR and VR have some things in common, it’s important to look beyond the hardware when designing.
While AR and VR have some things in common, it’s important to look beyond the hardware when designing. Image credit Adobe Stock.

What is virtual reality (VR)?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, virtual reality is an “experience where users feel immersed in a simulated world, via hardware[…] and software.” Put more plainly, virtual reality technology takes the user to a different place generated by technology, viewed (most often) through an immersive headset and sometimes with additional peripherals.

Headsets like The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift completely block out your surroundings when you wear them. They cover the user’s eyes like a blindfold, and when activated, the panels inside use mirrors and displays to completely immerse the user in the computer-generated world.

What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality is like a less immersive version of VR. Again from the Interaction Design Foundation, the definition of augmented reality is “an experience where designers enhance parts of users’ physical world with computer-generated input.” In an AR scenario, design elements act as an overlay or supplement to what the user senses and sees, as opposed to the complete sensory immersion of VR.

AR displays have become much more common over the last decade as the cameras and processors on mobile devices in particular have become both more powerful and more widely available. From projecting a Pokémon character onto your desk to visualizing a sofa in your living room, the applications of AR are now mainstream.

While both of these technologies can use headsets, VR is more immersive than AR.
While both of these technologies can use headsets, VR is more immersive than AR. Image credit Adobe Stock.

How do VR and AR compare?

VR and AR set out to achieve two different things in two similar but uniquely different ways. VR replaces reality with something new and immersive, while AR adds to and enhances your surroundings by adding computer-generated elements that would otherwise not be there.

Both of these technologies allow the user to experience and interact with products and designs in ways that haven’t been possible in the past. The benefits of creating an engaging, personal experience can do wonders for both the marketing and adoption of new products.

As you can see, VR takes the user away from the world while AR leaves the user in place but with the ability to see and sometimes interact with digital objects. Because each of these technologies targets very different goals and purposes, it’s important to know the different considerations for each.

Designing for a VR user experience

If you’re designing a VR user experience, you’re responsible for essentially creating not only an entirely new world but also ensuring that the user believes that they are experiencing something in a new and hopefully delightful way.

In order to design the best VR user experience possible, it’s important to focus on the four following aspects:

  • Interactivity – Design a world that users can move or touch. Just like the real world can be manipulated, so too should the virtual world you design. Your users have a sense of intuition and expectation that you can use to create restraints while also designing opportunities for delight.
  • Believability – Design a world that makes sense. While that doesn’t mean you have to design places or environments that are wholly realistic, make an effort to design in a way that engages your users’ senses without outwardly challenging too many of their existing mental models.
  • Explorability – Design a world that users can explore. Your users want to be able to explore and experience the world you’ve created rather than viewing and experiencing it all from one static location. Give them the opportunity to look and move around freely.
  • Immersiveness – All these qualities combine to create an experience and a world that is immersive and truly feels real. The goal is not to simply transport your user from one world to another. Instead, design for a world that delivers a cohesive and delightful experience.

Designing for an AR user experience

Unlike when designing for a VR user experience, designing for an AR user experience has more tangible and realistic constraints and limitations. Among other things, you should design with these concepts in mind:

  • Environment – Unlike the dedicated space needed for a VR experience, AR experiences can happen almost anywhere. Consider the contexts where your user might be and design for those specifically, whether that’s indoors, outdoors, sitting in one place, or on the move.
  • Safety – Likewise, keep your users’ safety in mind. Be helpful without being distracting, as your user might be walking down a crowded street or in a busy airport.
  • Simplicity – Just because you can design additional elements in a particular scenario doesn’t mean you should. Keep the digital objects to a minimum while still helping the user progress toward their goal.
  • Comfort – Because AR experiences involve the world around your user, design in a way that takes advantage of those limitations. Don’t design in a way that creates either a physical or mental strain for your user.
Considering your users’ surroundings is a key concept in designing both AR and VR experiences.
Considering your users’ surroundings is a key concept in designing both AR and VR experiences. Image credit Adobe Stock.

VR, AR, and real life

While both of these technologies are immersive, the differences in the approach far outnumber the similarities. Much like we wouldn’t design for a mobile app in the same way we’d design a desktop website experience, it’s important to make distinctions and decisions that take a user’s goal and their way of progressing towards it in mind. By keeping these considerations in mind, you’ll be able to take advantage of some of the new and exciting ways we’ll be experiencing technology and the world around us (real or virtual) for many years to come.