Last year was considered THE year of Virtual Reality (VR). Many devices have come out including Oculus Rift (purchased by Facebook for $2 billion), VIVE, PlayStation VR, and Google Daydream View. Content for these devices has improved as well with creative production houses like Within founded solely to create immersive storytelling experiences for companies such as Apple, The New York Times, NBC, Vice Media, United Nations, Tribeca and several music artists. While this sounds promising, VR is still very much in its infancy and working out some issues for end users, such as affordability, available content, ergonomics, and motion sickness. Many of these issues will be addressed over the coming years as many more people begin to adopt this new medium. At present, 43 million people worldwide own a VR headset, and ownership is predicted to rise more than 3-fold in just two years according to Information-Age.com.
Virtual reality is a technology that could actually allow you to connect on a real human level, soul-to-soul, regardless of where you are in the world. ~ Chris Milk, founder of VR technology firm Within
This rise in popularity is one of the main reasons the Department of Design integrated the study of Virtual Reality in our curriculum. This Spring, in order to prepare the students to design for this new medium, the BFA students took a six-week workshop led by UX designer Paul Hoover of the Seattle design studio Artefact. This opportunity wouldn’t have happened without the help of the Student Technology Fees. Western was able to obtain two VIVE headsets that are now set up in the Student Technology Center and Digital Media Center - accessible to all students. The Design students were the first ones to try it out, using software developed by Artefact called Storyboard VR. This tool allows people to easily prototype their concepts within VR.
Using this software, students were prompted to develop experiences that would have positive social impact through virtual reality. Students explored the potential positive and negative outcomes of VR through a Designing For Preferable Outcomes Framework provided by Paul. They chose a positive social outcome and paired it with an advantage of VR. They also gained a better understanding of the past, present, and future landscape for VR and learned best practices for designing experiences within a VR environment.
After experiencing VR for the first time, developing different applications within VR, and prototyping those concepts, students then presented their ideas at Artefact in Seattle to a large audience of creatives and technologists. Their final solutions thematically ranged from therapeutic and meditative tools, to addressing privacy issues, to exploring inclusivity within shared music consumption, and reimagining the future of the search engine, as well as the collaborative work space.
Students gained an appreciation for this new medium after not only experiencing VR first-hand, but also designing for it. They learned about the current drawbacks and also discovered the many benefits. Students questioned the possibility for isolation, motion sickness, duration of usability, and lack of control on what the user is seeing at any given moment. They recognize its inclusion and success among several industries including medicine, automotive, aerospace, education, journalism, and entertainment. They also learned about the advantages of the medium’s inherent participatory, spatial, immersive, and empathetic nature.
Not many institutions have adopted VR yet due to the lack of understanding and available resources. Western leads the field by investing resources in virtual reality curriculum. We can now teach our students the theory and production aspects behind VR so they are current within the industry and one step ahead of their peers. Visual designers can learn this as yet another new tool in their toolbox. They can consider how this new medium may change the way people communicate or experience the world around them in the future and continue to challenge the motives behind it.