Designing for another dimension

Everything we already do for web, mobile and desktop UX design is still relevant when designing immersive experiences. The process still includes discovery, ideation, prototyping, testing, building and iteration.

Although the goals are basically the same — designing delightful and compelling experiences that are easy to use — the platform is completely different. Instead of designing for 2D screens with a limited screen size, we are designing for another dimension in which 3D spaces and the world around us are the canvas.

rendering of person in headset standing in a circle
Storyboard layout by Vincent McCurley

This means we have to shift our mindset to start thinking in 360-degree, three dimensional spaces.

Shifting your mindset to first-person design

Unlike with 2D experiences where you can control what the user sees when, with 3D experiences, you have to take into account that the user may look anywhere at any time. This is where designing for print or for real space — such as installations and exhibits — are very relevant skills for creating virtual spatial designs and experiences.

VR Chat Shibuya Crossing in Parareal Tokyo
Me taking a selfie at Shibuya Crossing in Parareal Tokyo for the Virtual Market 4 event in VR Chat.

Understanding movement in space

Real-world objects can move in 6 different ways in physical space by rotating and moving back and forth and side to side on X, Y and Z planes.

YouTube player
Oculus Quest Launch Trailer

In virtual space, there are 2 types of freedom of movement available depending on the technology being used. It is important to know which technology and platform(s) you will be using before you start designing and developing the experience so that you don’t have to go back later and make costly changes.

3-degrees of freedom (3dof)

animation of person trying to move around in 3-dof environment
Animation of 3dof behavior created by Aleatha Singleton, CC BY 4.0. Sphere texture by pjotr.van.schothorstCC BY 4.0

This is mainly seen in phone-based headsets such as Google Cardboard VR and the Oculus Go headsets. It allows you to look around with your head, but you can’t move around as you would in the real world. If you tried to physically move your body in real space, the virtual world would follow you on a gimbal instead of you moving in that virtual world.

If you want to allow users to move around in this type of world, you would need virtual locomotion, which causes more of a risk of motion sickness. There are workarounds to reduce sickness, which will be covered in the “Moving Around (Locomotion)” section of these best practices.

6-degrees of freedom (6dof)

animation of person moving around in 6dof environment
Animation of 6dof behavior created by Aleatha Singleton, CC BY 4.0.

This is the type of movement you see in the higher end devices such as the HTC VIVE, Oculus Rift S, Valve Index, and the more affordable standalone Oculus Quest. You can rotate and move around in virtual space the same as you would in the real world. You can walk around, peek under objects and interact with them as long as the experience has been created to do so.

For larger virtual world maps, or limited physical space, you would have a combination of virtual locomotion and natural movement. The virtual locomotion still poses a risk for motion sickness when the real physical speed of movement doesn’t match the virtual speed. Again, there are workarounds to reduce sickness, which will be covered in the “Moving Around (Locomotion)” section of these best practices.

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I’m an Immersive Tech UX Design Professional with over 22 years of experience designing for kiosks, websites, mobile apps and desktop software for many well-known and not-so-well-known companies.

I’m not speaking on behalf of or representing any company. These are my personal thoughts, experiences and opinions.

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