Getting started understanding virtual reality user experience

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, let’s say you google virtual reality user experience. You’d get results like these: Not one but two sets of core principles that don’t quite agree with each other, an article that doesn’t tell you what’s right but tells you what’s wrong with user experience, guides that describe storytelling really well but are not the ones you’re looking for, and a few “behind the VR goggles” technical guides.

What may happen next is that you feel disappointed. Things spiral out of control, like this: Google’s poor results flood your hippocampus with cortisol. Your dopamine-seeking instincts make you check Twitter, remembering too late the drudge of negativity and Russian bots that it’s become. Cortisol strikes again. You spiral into despair and find yourself splayed on the couch, curled up in horror staring at an XFINITY ad landing page. You must have clicked on a banner ad from a Yahoo | Popsugar page in a daze.

If you’re trying to use Google to figure out what virtual reality user experience (VR UX) really is, chances are you might get so disoriented that you end up looking for Ryan Gosling on Popsugar, and end up in a lonely place: A Comcast ad landing page selling you essentially the same thing at more and more expensive prices. Lesson learned: Google’s not the best place to start with researching VR UX.

Instead, check out these links

Google’s Daydream Elements and Oculus have their principles on paper. If you want to get started learning about virtual reality user experience, just click those links and start exploring.

Google’s Daydream Elements provides an overview of the core principles that deepen immersion: Object interaction gives users a feeling of agency, rendering and lighting creates atmosphere, and good locomotion means good navigation. Oculus’ research is cutting-edge and quite technical. It’s really big on locomotion.

If you understand locomotion, and you will truly begin to understand immersion. When people put that VR headset on, it has to convince them that they have been transported to new worlds.

We’re going to examine locomotion today through Aircar, which nails the fundamentals of locomotion for seated VR experiences. We’ll also analyze how Aircar’s cockpit, defined by Oculus VR UX principles as the foreground, accentuates the living, breathing world outside and allows for comfortable locomotion. And finally we will explore how Aircar pushes conventional VR UX principles to its bounds by using discomfort from acceleration to increase immersion, the holy grail of a seated VR UX experience.

A believable foreground leads to comfortable locomotion

When you load up Aircar, you’re looking out from the cockpit of your flying car at a living breathing city. A cockpit, or the foreground, has to be believable to be immersive, and Aircar’s is very real. You feel like you could touch the knobs and dials in front of you if you reach out. You hear the rain splattering and see the raindrops trickling down your windshield. You can turn the music on and off with the press of a button.

The environment outside also reinforces the believability of your cockpit. The raindrops shift when you steer your vehicle. You hear the atmosphere outside. The outside world is changing, and your cockpit is a totem: a stable, safe space that grounds you. When you steer and accelerate your vehicle, instead of feeling motion sick from twists and turns, you’re instead immersed by the living, breathing neon-lit city outside. The world flies by you as explore the streets, perch on top of buildings, stay suspended in the air checking out the city from up high, and do so much more.

Aircar also pairs its stable foreground with a stable horizon – the line that separates the ocean and the sky – creating extra stability and eliminating motion sickness. There’s no mismatch between what your eyes see and what your brain senses: They agree that the environment outside is moving relative to your cockpit. This reinforces to your brain you’re not actually moving in real life either, which prevents motion sickness.

Acceleration intensifies immersion

Acceleration in VR apps can only increase immersion successfully if, at most, it only leads to a little bit of motion sickness. However, Aircar bucks this principle: Aircar creates discomfort during acceleration, but it’s not motion sickness. It’s a sort of minor discomfort that actually enhances immersion.

When you accelerate forward in Aircar, it mimics the free-fall, addictive feeling of plummeting down a roller coaster. When you accelerate, your body does not feel the velocity itself, which would lead to genuine motion sickness, but only feels the change in velocity, defined as acceleration. In exchange for some discomfort, you get increased immersion without motion sickness. What’s interesting is that you get this feeling even when accelerating forward. And if you aim your car down and accelerate, naturally you would feel this effect even more.

In VR, if an app can mimic the sinking feeling of a roller coaster drop during acceleration, discomfort increases immersion. It almost sounds too simple, right? Speeding up in VR should only feel like speeding up with no strings attached. But it’s really hard to get right executionally and Aircar nails it.


When you’re starting off researching VR UX, start by reading Daydream Elements and Oculus. They’re great places to start for learning about the building blocks of immersion, such as locomotion. Do this, and instead of ending up on a Comcast ad landing page like I did on my first foray, you’ll begin to understand what truly makes a great virtual reality user experience.

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