User experience design in AR & vr

The fast growing mediums of AR and VR are bringing in new considerations when it comes to the existing UX principles. Joined by FSC Advisor Alex Horton, the UK's leading AR/VR Director and Ben Curtis, Game and Experience Designer specialising in VR, we discussed the future of AI and VR, their potential and the challenges they bring.


With the popularity of VR and AR reaching fever pitch, UX specialists are being engaged to deliver innovative, interactive creative for their clients - creative that can be applied in these augmented virtual environments - more than ever before. And whilst principles of traditional experience design can be adjusted to realign with these new non-physical worlds, the distinctly different requirements of design for these mediums have left many practitioners feeling suddenly out of their comfort zones.

It would be no exaggeration to state that experiential, interactive and virtual design in the creative industries is exploding. In art, in advertising, in gaming.

And gaming is something FSC Advisor Alex Horton knows a hell of a lot about. The former Rockstar Games Art and Animation Director is responsible for creating interactive environments for the Grand Theft Auto franchise: arguably one of the most famous in video gaming history. Currently the UK’s leading AR/VR Director, interactive experience veteran Alex joined us to share his insight on how next generation experiences are shifting the landscape for UX design in a fireside chat with FSC Founder & CEO Justin Small.

Now Director of his own consultancy, Horton Designworks Ltd, Alex’s unparalleled combined expertise of games, VFX and creative direction has been employed by megabrands such as Nike, Jaguar and Absolut and seen him launch everything from HoloLens with Smurfs and vodka with DeadMau5. From flying like a bird, water sliding down The Shard, launching cars and sneakers, curating classical music concerts in Vienna and being responsible for instilling the odd bit of nausea, Alex’s perspective on the challenges and opportunities these new mediums presented a unique lens through which to consider the future of user experience.

Speaking to the value of freelancing, advantages of independence and benefits of working with multiple production houses, he referenced the synonymity of his own directive artistry in the space with the traditional technicality of the craft employed for film and screen, the power of the ‘reveal’ and why Scalextric remains relevant - not to mention rather useful when the players are under the influence of a few too many glasses of champagne.

It’s not about who you want to see it that matters, but that the person you never intended to actually enjoys it.

Alex emphasised the importance of speed in single use experiences: the need to create intuitive interactions that deliver with speed and impact. With vibe. 

He warned of how briefing for viral content is a delusional practice and reminded us that it’s never down to us to decide what lands with the audience. That it’s not about who you want to see it that matters, but that the person you never intended to actually enjoys it. 

He acknowledged that the future of this increasingly accessible medium in the wake of (relative) affordability still isn’t clear. That there’s “massive potential”, that “it can do great things”, but that, as experts in the field, we can’t afford to think that just because something is cool, other people will agree. Or even care. That, while it’s a fascinating space to watch, the goalposts are still wide open to what it might evolve to look like...

And when the applications for VR are as broad as mental health, that massive potential could have serious impact on people’s lives. 

Taking us on a journey from Economics student in rural Devon through life as Creative Director at Aardman to designing VR experiences to help with social anxiety and psychosis (via a brief stint attempting to reform the banking system), former Aardman Creative Director Ben Curtis brought the practical perspective from a very different use case for the medium, providing us with an insightful look at the processes and principles he adopts within his unique remit at Oxford VR.

Ben spoke to the desire to want to be part of something that makes a difference: to step away from the arbitrary and find purpose. To the pursuit of the fantastical story and the power of roleplay and immersion in the narrative, his obsession with problem solving and perfection. To transitions, the tactility of the visual. To ‘juice’.

He discussed the need to understand the difference between the technical, theoretical properties of VR - the physical product vs the worlds in which it immerses the user - in order to deal with complex challenges. 

The fact that “nothing survives its first iteration. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” The importance of full circle design thinking. His continued use of modelling: cardboard, Lego. Simplicity in testing. The need to try things out and acknowledge that, when testing, you are the facilitator, not the relevant voice. How multiple influences are essential. How not developing in parallel is a predestined fail. How we should “never ignore [the] original purpose”.

Sharing his go-to theoretical frameworks, terminology references and a host of superb resources, Ben’s mantra of “never stop learning” resonated with the room. Answering questions on the challenges of automating therapies, he touched on repetitive behaviour and the need to look for patterns. On learning by doing. On transference, because “it doesn’t just end when you take the headset off”. On social presence vs the artificial character and putting that into scenarios of interdependence. On the future of remote counselling and the applications of VR in depression, psychosis, PTSD and cases of extreme phobia, anxiety, Alzheimers and dementia - even surgery. On the potential for good but the need for more testing, iteration, regulation.  

And as the night came to a close, both Alex and Ben left us with a lot to think about. Because the future of AI and VR, whatever it ends up looking like, could be pretty damn huge...

FSC socials are free, relaxed and informal evenings that bring people together and create opportunities to see the world from a new perspective. Chill with us over a few drinks and hear from two fascinating speakers doing amazing things to disrupt the status quo in their industries. Get your learning in alongside fellow freelancers, startup founders and just generally interesting people with a passion for collaboration, sharing ideas and meeting like-minded folks who want to drive change and do good stuff: stuff that makes a difference. Honest, open conversation, delicious, humble food in the hippest car park in Peckham.  A chance to share, laugh, listen and be heard. No networking. And that’s a promise.

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