Innovation's New Realities
Although virtual reality has been around for years, its value as a product development tool is still being established. For many of us and despite hearing the promise of these new technologies, our experience with VR is limited to its use as an entertainment or presentation medium, in gaming or as a novel sensory experience. While it’s true that VR has been a novelty in the past, systems are becoming more accessible, more powerful and far more useful.
As consulting designers, we exist in a dynamic space framed by corporate R&D, start-ups, the venture community, and technology. From this vantage point, we see many potential projects and business models. We design tangible hardware and less tangible things like services, experiences, systems and product platforms. Product development and new product innovation is a serious and highly competitive pursuit for our team and our clients. The speed of innovation has increased and we’re moving toward a winner take all or winner take most competitive environment. All of this is relevant when building a case for a new development tool. Before we engage with a client on a project, we always consider the potential value we can provide, what our approach should be and what tools and methods are most appropriate.
Lately, when asking ourselves what tools work best for a given mission, the answer is increasingly VR.
We’ve been using VR in our development process for a little over two years. During this time, we’ve used it on over twenty-five projects. For us, this is a testament to how transformative VR has been to our practice. We didn’t know what to expect when we started using VR but now we believe it’s a game changer. Older readers may even remember hearing similar things in the early 1990s. This time is different.
VR is a powerful, usable and accessible tool and it’s here to stay.
On an elementary level, VR tools allow us to see things at an unprecedented fidelity much earlier in the development process. In its most basic form, VR allows you to experience virtual objects or spaces similar to how we experience them in real life. This ability affords creative freedom and the freedom to experiment. The more iterations we complete, the more we learn and the more refined our solutions become. VR tools are a natural fit for the iterative, creative process we follow as professional product developers. It only stands to reason that advanced tools like VR should enhance the creative process. Think of using VR as “casting a wider net longer”. Designers can achieve better results with a similar amount of effort. Designers are free to iterate and explore while the preciousness and expense associated with many traditional methods are dramatically reduced. Even when used just for visualizations (such as photoreal renders/animations), VR is a compelling and beneficial tool.
Most product development initiatives are beholden to time and budget considerations and there’s always pressure to move more rapidly. Physical models require money and depending on their complexity often have long lead times. Because of this, the concept alternatives that can be realistically evaluated in physical form are limited. Many valid design solutions are eliminated to maintain development pace and stay within budget estimates. Using VR, we’ve found that the best solution is more organically elevated and less determined by time and budget considerations.
Some clients have commented that they wish they’d seen the solution in VR sooner and that they would have may have made different design decisions. This is particularly true with physically large medical, equipment and mobility products where concepts are rarely experienced in actual size early enough to inform decisions.
With traditional tools, by the time a team is committed enough to model a large solution, most design decisions have already been made.
The real power of virtual reality in product development becomes apparent when it’s used as more than a “medium” or presentation technique. It is a convergence point, an environment for collaboration in which scale, proportion, interactions, movements, experiences, and relationships can all be easily explored. Extending its capabilities further we can model and simulate experiences by “mixing” real input devices with virtual products in virtual environments with virtual UIs. By introducing and blending real components with virtual components we create MR or mixed reality demonstrators. This mix of real and virtual assets, interactions and experiences have a multiplying effect and result in more harmonious and integrated design solutions. Once created these mixed reality simulations can be easily shared and evaluated at unprecedented levels of detail and resolution.
In our practice, we are encountering new applications and uses for our suite of VR tools on a daily basis. The fluidity and flexibility of our VR authoring environment along with our input and output devices is difficult to overstate. Can we attach a real steering wheel and throttle to a virtual vehicle? Can we embed an interactive GUI and share it with our co-developers around the world? Can we use motion and eye tracking for evaluation? Can we use game-engines and programming to organize concepts and create research interfaces to digitally document user feedback? Yes to all of these things. VR is a meta-tool; a tool for iterative design, a communication tool, a simulation tool, an evaluation tool, and a collaboration environment.
As good as all of this sounds, there is a catch. Designers still need to create good work and no amount of VR magic can seduce an audience and sell a weak solution. With other mediums, like farkle laden renderings, designers had more license to cheat reality. We’ve found the opposite to be true in VR. Even for first time users, the tech tends to be transparent. In our experience, users are not caught up in the technology or distracted by the medium. When using VR for product development the message is the message and the medium fades to the background. This was a surprise for us early on. For some reason, we believed that product evaluations would be colored or skewed by the technological overlay necessitated by VR. People get it and acclimate quickly. If you have a poorly resolved design it will be readily apparent in VR.
In VR, there is less interpretation, and no opportunity to hide behind a glistening farkle, garbage in — garbage out.
Industrial designers and product developers have always been on the cutting edge when it comes to using new tools. The past 20 years have witnessed many new additions to our toolbox, software, hardware, modeling tools, drawing tools, research tools, and methods. We strive to use the best tool for the job, the tool that will help us find the right answer using the most direct, highest quality process. In our daily practice, VR is rapidly finding its way to the top of this collection of development tools due to its boundless capability and its relative efficiency. After many projects in VR, we know these tools enhance the quality of our work. Concepts demonstrated virtually accelerate the development process, build momentum and generate excitement by rallying key stakeholders. In rare cases where initial skepticism exists, it quickly melts away once someone dons a VR headset. We’ve seen VR reassure decision makers and cause them to be less risk-averse.
VR is an extraordinary tool for product development and if you’re not using it, you probably should be.