If we keep following this analysis, a design’s goal becomes interactive immersion. This holds generally true and even more relevant in VR. The great thing about this is also that theater and film already have terminology for immersion that fits exactly what I’m looking for; Diegetic. Diegetic means “in-world”. In a movie when you hear the soundtrack but the characters don’t, that’s a non-diegetic sound. But if the music is playing in the movie and the character turns it off by turning off a radio, that’s a diegetic sound.
Whether you realize it or not you’ve experienced diegetic design and non-diegetic design, let me give a common example. Our world is still in the transition from print to digital, have you ever went to look at a restaurant’s menu online and it was just an image of their menu. I would consider this design non-diegetic, the menu was designed to be viewed printed out not viewed on a phone. And sure you can still use the menu but it does create some problems and dissonance.
Good design is contextual; the pamphlet could have been the best design in the world, but on a phone it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a new concept, I was taught to design to my medium in school and most designers get to a point where they do this subconsciously. But when designing for such a new medium it’s vital that we re-address the philosophical specifics so that we can construct a framework to begin to understand why good design is diegetic and why that’s so specifically important to VR
In VR we have control over the world we see unlike ever before, this is exciting but also very dangerous. We did not evolve with the ability to teleport yet in VR it happens all the time. VR is only now becoming a consumer viable product because people have worked for decades to improve hardware and software so that basic issues like resolution, latency, etc don’t cause people immediate distress. But the psychological effects of VR are still very much unknown.
A break in immersion is a disorienting experience in the physical world, but in VR it can be dangerous. In designing worlds in VR we are creating new realities to experience, realities where physics are malleable. We’ve evolved to believe what we see, and our brains’ ability to remodel our established mental models is much more malleable than you realize. It may not take long to become accustomed to the ability to teleport in VR but when you leave VR you can’t teleport. This dissociation can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful.
I have had short but severe experiences with dissociation after several longer VR sessions, and I can tell you it’s not something I ever want to experience again. I’ve also experienced several games in VR that made me dizzy and nauseous. I think VR has much to offer but anyone creating in the medium needs to understand that there are very real physical and psychological safety concerns that need to be taken into account. The ability to create users’ realities is incredibly powerful and should be handled intentionally by designers.
Good design is unobtrusive because good design is diegetic. Diegetic design is design that is contextual, that takes advantage of the inherent qualities of the medium. It’s not a design that is translated from one medium to another, but that is instead created for the medium it exists in. When a design has become decontextualized it is no longer diegetic to its medium, it’s no longer good design. Designers have the responsibility to build immersion through the intentional creation of a design or interaction.
Good design is Honest
“It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”
Rams intends this principle as a guard against false advertising and feature creep. The 10 principles don’t talk about material constraints in the context of design except in an environmental way. I’m going to make an interpretation of good design is honest from a material’s interpretation. Rams’s principles attempt to encompass design into a series of 10 agnostic statements, much of my early design education attempted the same abstract and agnostic language. Lots of “form follows function” being beaten into me. The problem with teaching in this abstracted way is that if form follows function is only an abstraction, material form often gets ignored.
When concrete was introduced as a widespread building material at the start of the industrial revolution it was considered a “Modern” material. Concrete can support far more weight and in a different manner than any materials that had been previously available. Initially concrete was used by architects to make thinner arches and supports, all in the same style as they had been making them, just thinner and stronger with concrete. Soon though it began being experimented with by curious architects who realized that with concrete you could build forms previously not possible. From these experiments the most wondrous and weird structures got made, out of concrete. Then once its qualities were understood better, it was finally utilized for structures and forms that only concrete could accomplish by the wider profession. The understanding of a material, and it’s intrinsic qualities spawned a revolution of design and innovation.
This is how the landscape of VR feels right now. There are plenty of people simply building better arches in VR, but then there are people who are making wild and wonderful experiences. As impressive as it is to have a car or plane simulator in VR, it’s more impressive to do something that you can only do in VR. An experience that can only exist in VR because it’s taking advantage of the medium’s unique intrinsic qualities, something like a spaceship fighter simulator.
This is why bad design and good design are contextual, and a design must be honest to the qualities of its medium. When form follows function, it’s usually a question being applied to an established problem and in that way it’s a very valid guideline. Because from that line of questioning comes the decision of which material to use, dictated by the function that the form needs to follow. But here we are trying to ascertain qualities intrinsic to VR design, so we must work solely around form, as we have no particular function in mind. And when discussing solely form we can only talk about the qualities of the medium in which we are discussing, Virtual Reality.
What are the qualities of VR?
VR has all the malleable qualities of the digital world, but instead of constrained by being viewed through a 2D screen, you are situated to interact with it in a spatial 3D manner. Currently, with some VR setups you can move inside a small area, and you usually have controllers of some kind that can give haptic feedback but do not provide a solid resistance to press against. This is the current state of VR, but the industry is constantly pushing the boundaries in two directions; upgrading the visual immersion qualities of VR through better hardware and software, and trying to enhance sensory feedback. The qualities of VR will adjust as technology continues to progress but the core of the medium has already emerged, the joining of physical and digital realities in full immersion.
VR is a digital-physical space with limited means of haptic feedback and interaction. This is an incredibly malleable medium. With digital tools, from websites to video games to apps, there exists the ability to create any world one can imagine, and now with VR you can exist in those worlds physically and interact with them. Not only does VR mean world building but also the augmentation of human abilities: in VR you can fly, go to space, control time, visit the center of the earth, be a giant, be an ant. This is the amazing part of VR, the inherent creativity and malleability of the digital medium paired with presence and immersion of the physical creates a true extension of the human senses. It is for lack of a better word, magical.
Arthur C. Clarke’s quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic might be trite but I find it to be very true here. VR has gotten to the point where technology is fast enough and advanced enough that when you come to a cliff edge in VR, you pause. You pause because the instinctual part of your brain very much believes that cliff to be real, because everything you are seeing about it aligns with how our eyes have evolved to process visual information. As far as the more basic instinctual parts of our brains are concerned, that cliff you are seeing in VR is as real as the edge of the Grand Canyon. That in itself is sufficiently advanced to be magic, but we also have the ability in digital technology with code to not just replicate the physical world, but extend it in ways we can’t yet imagine, and that can truly create magic.
Good design is unobtrusive — Diegetic
Good design is contextual and immersive. In VR this means creating designs for VR and not porting designs or design patterns blindly from other mediums.
Good design is Honest — Magic
Good design utilizes the intrinsic qualities of the medium it’s being designed for. In VR this means taking advantage of pseudo-physical space and digital malleability.