Virtually Usable | A Review of Virtual Reality Usability Evaluation Methods

For my final project for Design for Usability, I took a bit of a different route, opting not to do another human-centered design project from start to finish. Instead, I wanted to look into what usability means for Virtual Reality applications, given the rapidly accelerating advances in Human Computer Interfaces (HCI) and VR and Augmented Reality (AR) apps and programs that have been flooding the market.

My intention was to help frame the robust and informative, yet dense and overlapping, body of academic research into a more digestible roadmap or toolkit that helps those tasked with building and evaluating virtual reality applications –often not human computer interaction (HCI) experts – to quickly and easily identify which of the prevailing evaluation methods might best meet their needs.

Also, one severe gap that became readily apparent to me when beginning research was the lack of newer works (post 2010) that addressed this field. Since much of the earlier research assumes the available evaluation tools and technological constraints at the time of the study, I believe that current and emerging technologies such as wearables, facial & feature recognition, and more accessible/easy-to-use VE creation tools & (e.g. Google Cardboard) distribution platforms have the potential to support these evaluation methods in new ways. Thus  I also sought to briefly sketch out some of my ideas for how these technologies might be used, and outline some related areas for further inquiry and experimentation.

In order to begin this process, I felt a literature review was the best tool, outlining some of the dominant academic contributions in the field of VR/AR while pulling out the insights and best practices developed throughout the research. 

Goals for Literature Review

  • Define virtual reality and briefly review the major types of VR technology commercially available
    • Virtual reality desktops
    • Head-mounted displays (HMDs)
    • Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVEs)
  • Categorize some of the major differences between VR and traditional user interfaces – such as GUIs – and how these differences lead to specific types of usability evaluation issues.
  • Briefly review and compare successful methodologies for VR usability evaluation that have been proposed and tested in earlier studies
  • Using the categories defined above, build a framework showing where and when these tested evaluation methodologies might be best implemented

You can find the full paper here: VirtuallyUsable

Presenting the Idea

In conjunction with this paper – which became a bit lengthy – I also thought it would be useful to translate the research into a shorter presentation that could be given to developers, designers, and engineers looking to build VR/AR applications.

I presented my work to my Design for Usability class including our instructor and her colleagues from Fjord Consulting, and while limited for time (this should really be a 30 minute to 1-hour presentation) was able to address several topics and questions that sparked interest from all.

Looking Forward

I hope to continue looking into this work moving forward, and ways in which usability evaluation methods can transform to help designers build better, more user-friendly VR apps moving forward.

I also plan to look further into one key issue that came up during the research but is at the core of all virtual reality development moving forward – an issue of remapping.

Perhaps the largest and most significant difference between VEs and traditional user interfaces is rooted in our very perception of reality itself, and related assumptions and expectations of what is possible in virtual realities as a result. The successful translation of embodied actions into virtual environments requires interactions with virtual worlds that mirror the complexity of our interactions with the real physical world, rather than those needed to understand and manipulate a traditional user interface.

I was fascinated by the concept of “remapping” sensorial experience between “real” and “virtual” visions of reality, and what sorts of social, ethical, moral, and cultural opportunities and threats this requirement may present moving forward.


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