Geoffrey W. Brown
Human Centered Designer

Case study

Vive Phone Services

What assurances do people need in order to have a great VR experience?

Company
HTC
Role
Senior Designer
Scope
Research, definition, VR, mobile, web
Links
Google Play
Apple App Store

The vast majority of my time at HTC (nearly 2 years, in total) was spent thinking about and designing for virtual reality. I had a few projects on my plate before I signed up to work on the product that ultimately became the Vive, but in earnest, VR was my bread and butter during my time at the company. It's pretty cool to be a few years ahead of the curve, and in that respect, the Vive truly shines.

I've worked on more than a few Vive related projects at HTC in San Francisco. Unfortunately, for the time being I can't tell you much. One of the smaller but more interesting projects I helped nurture, however, was the fledgling Vive Phone Services Product.

HTC began by asking a question: "what happens when you connect a mobile device to your head mounted display?" I jumped at the opportunity to explore this space.

We began with a hunch: being connected to the outside world is important in VR. But that wasn't our only hunch – we also believed that VR required complete immersion. What is a great VR experience, after all, if it's not with your door closed, headphones turned up, and the lights off? Your phone set to mute. Fully immersed – total "presence." What we found, however, contradicted one of these hunches, and led us to begin creating what ultimately became the first iteration of Vive Phone Services.

Early concepting and Research

I tend to start off most projects by writing and sketching. I do most of my writing in IA Writer, which helps me focus my drawings. An example of this can be seen in the first thumnbnail image. Our team (a confluence of design researchers, interface designers and interaction designers) was also lucky enough to get down to Austin during an early phase of our project to attend a VR game jam hosted by the most excellent Owlchemy Labs.

We had the chance to talk with tons of VR developers, and uncover a bevy of latent needs, wants and desires which helped inform the design direction for later work. We also conducted extensive in-home interviews with analogous groups of people who helped us understand the nature of immersion and gaming on multiple fronts. Organized brainstorms helped us focus and advance the direction of what to do next. This early work yielded a set of design principles that we posted in the office to guide our work.

Contrary to our initial assumptions, we learned that it’s “irresponsible” for users to ignore reality when immersed in VR. People need to have access to outside communications to feel safe and responsible.

This early research illustrated to us that there was a simple but useful opportunity in providing people access to important incoming information while immersed in VR. Without access to to their phone and other critical online services, users will consistently break presence. In other words, they’ll always be taking off the headset, or be distracted by the fact that they may miss whatever it is that are expecting in the real world. HTC was subsequently posed with a obvious but ripe opportunity filled with true user need.


Prototyping

VR poses some interesting questions with regards to communicating design intent. How does a designer even begin to explain thoughts and ideas on how software should behave inside VR? We’re still in the early days of this stuff – and as of writing this post, no tools like Invision (for example) exist for designing VR systems. They’ll come, but we’re just not there yet.

How might we design a system that provides Vive users with the appropriate level of phone and connected services while still preserving the integrity of an immersive VR experience?

One way that we decided to begin exploring communicating VR behavior (both software and hardware interactions) was through video. I began by running to the local Sports Authority and quickly purchasing a set of inexpensive head and wrist sweatbands, which I quickly operated on in order to strap an HTC One m8 to my head. Using my newly created head-mounted camera, I captured video of me reenacting what it might be like to receive a message or a phone call while inside of VR. I used Adobe After Effects to quickly superimposed an interface so that I could share early ideas with other designers in the studio.

This rough prototype helped spark a collaboration with Shaun Saperstein from the HTC Advanced Concepts team. Shaun’s an incredible visual storyteller and film maker, who helped dial up the design intent across a variety of different scenarios. We used proxy hardware and interface design, and professionally filmed and animated what handling a phone call or SMS might look like in VR. Videos were then used as a communications tool both internally and with partners.


Interactions

The team and I built upon the ideas contained in the videos, and spent hours sketching and wire framing behaviors across all Phone Services touch points – VR, mobile and desktop software. I was charged with designing how users receive incoming messages in VR and interact with them, as well as how a user may pair their mobile phone to the Vive via our desktop PC software.

People need baseline assurances that they can still communicate with those that matter to them most, especially when considering the unprecedented nature of the immersiveness of VR.

The wireframes above represent a handful of expressions of intent that I drew for the non-VR side of Phone Services. Things get a bit more streamlined when you need to design for glowing rectangles as opposed to a full virtual environment. I worked to communicate all aspects of the Phone Services design with our Taiwan-based engineering teams, as well as Thomas Street, a design and prototyping partner based in Seattle.

Ultimately, Thomas Street took over the vast majority of the design work for VR notifications due to greater proximity to our Seattle-based prototyping team. The work they created was based on ground work that me and other HTC team members designed. I ended up focusing on the desktop and mobile pairing software that enables the Vive to communicate with iOS and Android handsets.


Final products

What you see above are representative samples of the final product that shipped. I was responsible for the interaction design for the iOS and Android applications (visuals were handled by our awesome HTC design team mates in Seattle). I was also responsible for the final interaction design of how a user connects via our PC application.


Video walk through

Wrap up

Designing for VR is both exciting and challenging. I’m proud to say that we began the design process with attempting to understand how people might use a service like this in the future – despite how niche VR might have been at the time. I’m also proud that we ended up shipping a product that worked – albeit, one that still needs considerable refinement in the future.

One of my biggest challenges in this project consisted of attempting to understand future behavior with new technology based on current behavior with existing tech. Thankfully, humans often prove to be consistent with their needs, and if looked at through the right lens, the future can still be designed for. People need baseline assurances that they can still communicate with those that matter to them most, especially when considering the unprecedented nature of the immersiveness of VR – and the HTC Vive Phone Services software is one step closer to helping VR users achieve that goal.


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