Join us at Device Talks Boston in October

VR: From “Dactyl” to practical

September 10, 2018

I had my first virtual reality (VR) experience at an arcade called Aladin’s Castle located in the Brookfield Square Mall in suburban Milwaukee in 1991.

The arcade was one of a few across the country that had a powerful new “virtual reality” game titled “Dactyl Nightmare that was available to play for $2 a turn. As a video game-addicted teenager restricted by the confines of the 16-bit era, I was anxious to give this new-fangled technology a try.

From my memory, which may be slightly rose-tinted, “Dactyl Nightmarewas an incredibly immersive experience. Even with the basic polygonal graphics and choppy frame rate, it was convincing. For the first time, you could feel yourself within a virtual space and sense the scale and depth of it all without any gimmicks.

I had seen the future for a mere $2. What I didn’t know then was that I was seeing 27 years into my own future and the future of design.

It’s 2018 and VR is almost mainstream. While it may appear that VR has finally arrived, it’s still a few years from achieving commercial ubiquity like, say, smartphones or voice assistants. I find this surprising considering my teenaged self was so certain that VR was going to be in every home long before the release of “The Matrix”.

I like to make bold predictions like that based on my gut. I’m always right – I’m just off by a decade or two. As designers, we’re always thinking forward and sometimes we get ahead of ourselves. We think ahead of the growth curves of technological advancements and acceptance. What we think is going to “take off” instantly can flounder for years until the technology and market are truly ready. Looking back, that’s definitely been the case with VR during its 27-plus-year gestation period.

I couldn’t have been more excited when we decided to put together a VR studio here at Design Concepts. I’ve since fallen in love with VR – not so much as a way to play virtual paintball after hours, but as a tool for new product development. New toys and technology can blind us. It’s easy to get caught up in the magic and possibility of the technology and forget that it still needs to be useful to the design process. It must be useful to the people we are designing for and with.

I can evangelize VR all day, but until our clients start asking for VR work within their projects on a regular basis, I can’t talk much about its value to our business of design.

The discomfort of “not quite seeing where the design is going” is completely removed.

Fortunately, it’s beginning to happen – more clients are getting exposed to VR and more are talking about it. VR bridges the interpretation gaps. There is far less need to stretch their brain, compared with seeing the “vision” on paper. It allows the client to engage with the design process in a much more meaningful way, giving them the ability to explore the design. Therein lies the value that is taking VR from a novelty to an expectation, and that’s the path to acceptance and eventual ubiquity.

We’ve been incorporating VR into our process more and more – getting beyond 2D sketching and CAD screen and into a world that instantly gives you context and scale. This has allowed our teams to evaluate designs at a much higher fidelity. That’s great for engineers and designers internally, but what’s been even more valuable is using VR for client-facing presentations.

We used VR on a project with Pacific Cycle, the parent company of Schwinn. It wasn’t part of the scope, but it was the right time to use it. Their industry moves fast and making physical prototypes – while a necessity – would push their timelines out too far. This was a perfect opportunity to leverage VR while designing a new accessory for a new Schwinn model.

The accessory in question was large and fairly complex in its construction; it would not be not quick or inexpensive to make production-level materials. We were able to build the accessory concepts and a fairly accurate model of the Schwinn bike they’d be married to in CAD. Using the CAD as a VR overlay, we fit it to the bike in the real world. If you reached out for the bike’s seat or handle bars in VR, they were actually there in the physical space. This allowed the Pacific team to sit on the bike and view the new accessory design in context – without spending the time and the materials that it would take to build multiple physical prototypes and look at each one.

We were able to show the Pacific team multiple concepts and swap them out in real time. If they wanted to see a different color or material finish, we were able to change that, too, in milliseconds rather than hours. And all of this is happening in context of the bike and its environment, which helped our client instantly understand the design intent. You can’t get that from 2D renderings or by spinning a model around on the screen.

Dave Duecker, president of Pacific Cycle, experienced the presentation firsthand. It was his first exposure to VR. “It certainly helped me get comfortable with the design presented,” he said after the presentation. Think about that wording: Get comfortable with the design. That is VR bridging those interpretation gaps, making something new and different more understandable and clear. That discomfort of “not quite seeing where the design is going” is completely removed. That’s powerful stuff!

This was a few months ago, and we’ve since made so many more improvements to our process and presentations. We’re just getting started, too. We are now exploring what VR means for user testing and research, but I am going to save that for another blog post later.

In the meantime, I’d like to make another bold prediction: If you haven’t incorporated VR into your product development process by say … 2023, well, for one you’re not very hip and two, you’re losing money, time, and likely your customers.