As part of the Virtual Storylab Module of the Virtual Reality Masters at The University of the West of England, I was assigned a brief by The Royal Opera House (TROH) and Thomas Metcalfe, alongside two of my fellow students, Harrison Willmott and Eirian Soar. The brief in summary stipulated:
‘To create a headset prototype that ‘heighten emotions’ and is ‘transcendent, frameless, unbounded, expressive, delighting, inclusive and empowering’ that draws refence from ‘theatre, fashion, millinery, interaction design, architecture and dance’
Throughout this production we discovered different ways of delivering a project through understanding our limitations of what is feasible with our skillset and product design knowledge. We found that an alternative to delivering a finessed final prototype was to deliver detailed blueprints for the client to adapt and interpret. However, we found that due to the flexibility, adaptability and universality in our designs, a blueprint for a design would have been too complex as our iterations varied as to how a prototype could exist with the different accessibility, interactivity and medium needs. Therefore, we decided to document our process and outline the obstacles and thoughts behind our ideas with an aim to deliver a set of design principles that the client can use as a baseline vision for the next phase. We decided that we should focus on the user experience (UX) and deliver a set of ideas around creating an experience for the user that was unique and inclusive. My personal aim in steering the project was to focus on accessibility and inclusiveness and how a product can deliver an emotional response through its user interaction. I saw it as my role to write and develop a report outlining the process and key questions asked giving further detail to be delivered to the client as baseline research for their development.
Our final result was the delivery of an augmented reality experience (adaptable as a virtual reality experience) in which the user can view another user in a superimposed costume using object target techniques on the headset. This experience can also be synced to a virtual reality headset with the mask being used to add finesse and character to the experience. We redesigned the headset by removing the straps, keeping the original housing and create, using 3D design and printing methods, an adaptable and malleable scaffold to attach to the headset for different uses. We attached a staff to the headset for the user to hold, taking the weight out of their hands and to provide them with further agency.
As the brief was ambiguous in stipulating whether the experience intended would be an augmented reality or virtual reality experience, we decided to explore an option that included both. The idea was to venture into a universally adaptable scaffold that can be inclusive of newly designed headsets that emerge on the market. The idea behind this was the consideration of the almost instantly obsolete headsets that are released. By creating an experience that is essentially a multi-experience idea we have considered the varied content and contexts that the client may want to exhibit using the headset.
The idea of medium as narrative is particularly important to this brief, I interpreted this as TROH intending to facilitate the transgression of creative technology into the high art realm. Engberg writes ‘media studies begin from very different assumptions about the nature of medium, because it looks not at high art in the first instance but at the range of culture uses for any particular media technology.’ (Engberg, 2014, p.4). If TROH, alongside other culturally established institutions begin to adopt new creative technologies into their medium, there are limitless possibilities to accessing new audiences, diversifying the industry and ultimately integrating new technologies into ‘high art’.
We segregated our project into four different iterations of the prototype example naming each example different names such as ‘The Scaffold’ and ‘The Gauze’; we began to use different language when conversing with each other and developing our own headset jargon. Engberg goes on to write that “Those working in interaction design and those developing new computing technologies are particularly attracted to the notion that forging a medium means developing a characteristic language. Such a language is most often seen as growing out of the materiality of the medium itself” (Engberg, 2014, p.5). If TROH were to adopt the medium, there will be a divergence of culture and language as a classical artform where it’s own culturally specific language collides with new digital terms in a theatrical context possibly resulting in deeper cultural and subcultural roots of creative technologies.
Arguably the culture of three-dimensional space existing in the art world has exists for millennia as classical artists attempt to immerse the audience through panelled paintings or chambers of murals. Using composition techniques, painters have alluded to the viewer being inside the paintings such as (as Engberg references) American Abstract Expressionists using linear perspective techniques (Engberg, 2014, p.4). It would be only appropriate for the creative technologies industries to be adopting language from the art world in the same way that is expect vice-versa. This is how we came up with the term ‘Gauze’ which draws from theatre as a wire mesh used for set design.
Our focus was to create an experience that is UX focussed, inclusive of ideas regarding a headset that is comfortable and ‘accessible for all’. We were increasingly aware from the brief, our research, user testing and our own personal experience that headset designs and alternate reality experiences differed substantially user to user. Vrebelo writes ‘considering the UX occurs as a consequence of the interaction between a user and a product within a physical, social and cultural context, researchers must be aware that, depending on the context at hand, users can have different experiences with the same product.’ (Vrebelo, 2012, p.964) Product design including; comfortability; onboarding; aesthetics and context of the experience (whether it being a bedroom, theatre or gallery space) all are cogs in a wheel that form a user’s first impressions of the product. Vrebelo continues ‘The human-product interaction dimension may take place in two moments: the first contact with the product and during the interaction.’ (Vrebelo, 2012, p.966) Our aim was to develop a series of design principles that embraced various problems with current headsets and allowed the first contact and the interaction to be an accessible, cultural and fulfilling experience by creating a theatrical installation that nurtures emotions subject to ideas belonging to the spectacle, whilst embracing problems around onboarding and facilitation.
Our headset designs focussed on the ‘physiological reaction’ rather than the ‘subjective evaluations’ and ‘action tendencies’ (International Organisation for Standardisation, 2010) of product interactions such as the weight, face shapes, height adjustment and ideas around those with other physical impairments. Headsets produced by Silicon Valley seem to be misinterpreting the history of technology and disability. Technology means acceptability to the disabled body, as mentioned in Rashid’s AR and IoT case study regarding UX and disability. Rashid writes ‘Participants understand and expect technology as a means to get independence and have their own privacy.’ (Rashid, 2017, p.282). By providing design principles, we have created a pathway that considers the different access needs of those with disabilities to have a fulfilling headset experience that avoids the need for a designated attendant for a disabled user, as the same study also states ‘participants answers emphasised they are not comfortable with receiving help all the time during shopping or going to a library, feeling ashamed and shy of asking for assistance all the time.’ (Rashid, 2017, p.282) The need for an attendant is probably always going to be paramount to a multi-user headset viewing but the disabled body should arguably not need extra assistant but rather a piece of technology that works for them without sacrificing the immersion and user experience intended.
A product, its design and its function are enough to create status in the user and provide the user with a sense of empowerment over their product. Vrebelo talks about ‘users expect not only the products efficiency, that is, its ability to be easily learned and used, but also its attractiveness, challenge, enjoyment and in some cases, its capacity to create status’ (Vrebelo 2012, p.965). In the current landscape, virtual reality is a medium for the privileged, it is financially inaccessible to most and certainly inaccessible outside of higher economically developed countries. ‘The emotional reactions and behavioural responses are dependent on the users expectation and hence are strongly related to the users cultural background and lifestyle (Vrebelo, 2012, p.966), it is highly likely that TROH audience member will be interacting with a headset in a different way to a gamer or a programme developer, there may be different emotional engagement and behavioural responses that are unique to cultural background and lifestyle. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to test out our headset prototype on the avid ‘high art’ culture viewer and this is a user testing scenario that I would recommend to be forwarded to the next phase. In our user testing we found that in the performance of users were always looking for the cracks and playing with the content in unexpected ways and thus creating new pathways in UX interactions that could affect different content being created across the industry
An important element for the empowerment of the user was agency and the decision-making process the user experiences the headset and content with. Our design principles allow users further agency throughout the onboarding and offboarding from the headset. There are no straps to ‘trap’ you in and the user is invited to opt out at any point if feeling anxious or unfulfilled by the experience. We felt that by creating an augmented reality experience as well as virtual reality, we were allowing our clients to see the potentials of working with different mediums. Macintye writes ‘We could argue that the user gains a sense of agency by choosing when and whether to inhabit the points of view of each other’s characters. (Macintyre, 2003, p.15). The medium of augmented reality enjoys a higher sense of agency that virtual reality as there are more ‘natural’ gestures and communication channels that allow the user to move around a space in a confident manner. This element is particularly important to new, diverse and otherwise unorthodox audiences who might find the experience more intuitive and thus more accessible.
When designing the headset we took in consideration how a headset ‘communicates’. By communication, I mean how the headsets and those wearing the headsets might interact with one another, We found that through the medium of augmented reality there was a different type of potential ‘communication’ that is harder if not impossible to replicate in cyberspace. Augmented reality, by infusing cyberspace with our reality creating a hybrid space means that interaction between users is more natural and intuitive. Szalavári when talking about their augmented reality case study ‘Studeirstube’ says ‘it is possible to move around freely without fear to bump into obstacles, as opposed to fully immersive displays where only virtual objects can be perceived. This enables a working group to discuss the viewed object, because the participants are seeing one another and can therefore communicate in the usual way.’ (Szalavári, 1998, p.39) Szalavári goes onto talk about ‘normal human interactions’ such as gestures or verbal queues. These interactions are unique to our human bodies and cultures that a machine will struggle to ever replicate fully because as humans we have an ‘aura’ (Benjamin, 1969). Walter Benjamin coined this word in the context of mechanical reproduction and how even if machines reproduce a painting or an experience nothing will have the same intrinsic value as the original. The idea of being present in a space and acting natural whilst wearing a clump of technology on your head is a problem, which this project tries to embrace by delivering potential experiences that are site specific, where the user can interact with the physical space as well as participation in the space. Mcintyre alludes to the need for “another term to describe the sense of ‘being there’ – of being in a meaningful physical environment with its own significance.” (Mcintyre, 2003, p.15) which reflects the argument made earlier for the a new generation of semantics to describe these new experiences. Our experience design is intended for a theatrical site specific installation which evoke more awe as an emotional response than a cyberspace piece as the user is responding and reacting intuitively, retaining this ‘aura’.
In Technology as Experience (2004), Peter Wright and John McCarthy expanded the notion of aesthetics to include a variety of affective and emotion responses to a designed artefact (Engberg, 2014, p.5). Our headset, through its own unique adaptable design that can be customised, created by or manipulated for uniquely for the user develops an emotional response to the aesthetic or digital artefact that might not be be as clear in the headsets designed by silicon valley. There is potential for the user to create their own digital costume and create a unique experience for themselves and other users around them.
Bridging the gap between aesthetics and craft have been previously critically responded to the term ‘aesthetics’ since the 18th century with interaction design writhers adopting this term to describe experiences with digital interfaces (Engberg, 2014, p.5). A user might respond to a digital interface on a screen the same way they might respond to a collection of paints and a canvas; there is interaction to be made and an emotional response will be a product of the aesthetics created. Our headset gives scope for the users in a performance to be participatory and a part of a shared narrative experience where the aesthetic and narrative is a collaboration between those present in the space.
First impressions count with artefacts when the user first comes into ‘contact with the product (the user) may determine its attractiveness or repulsiveness.’ (Vrebelo, 2012, p.965). We attempted to mask the headsets innate ugliness by presenting the headset with a ornately created scaffold to give the user a positive first impression, that this artefact you are about to interact with lures you in with the prerequisite of interesting content. The spark of emotion created by product design inevitably adds to the experience of the interaction. “Most approaches on usability tend to underestimate the influence of emotions; however, the products aesthetic appeal, as well as the pleasure and the satisfaction offered to the user, determines a product’ success in the market (Helender & Khalid 2006).” (Vrebelo, 2012, p.964) The headset we have created has opportunities to draw from inspiration of theatre, costume, fashion and millinery to create a product that is in line with TROH’s reputation for intricacy and finesse. By ‘stylising’ a headset, the user is drawn to the product which in turn will impact on their emotional interaction with the content. Engberg talks about finding new ways in which ‘digital media reconfigures our sense psychologically’ (Engberg, 2014, p.5) In studying digital aesthetics, we need to not look exclusively for a one user answer and TROH’s choices in their design will contribute in their cultural specificities to that reconfiguration for a different audience.
One of the key conclusions we discovered was that there is no such thing as universally accessible and the contest that a medium exists in is vital to the UX of content. We were attempting to create a headset that has the potential to create a similar experience for multiple users with different accessibility needs. We found that by creating multiple open ended designs that can be adapted to the clients accessibility needs we were sacrificing multiple levels of immersion such as the 5DOF movement. One idea to progress this project forwards was that we would first categorise different types of accessibility needs in respond to headset UX and present a flow chart of how design elements can be adapted or sacrificed to meet other design characteristics for a bespoke user experience with unique accessibility needs. Our ‘Gauze’ report outlines a set of design principles that outline a guideline to designing a headset that takes into consideration ideas around interactivity, immersion and user accessibility with an emphasis on design components that can be adaptable to the clients and users needs.
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