First Things First

       It’s been an autumn of firsts.

       I went to my first User Experience symposium a few weeks ago.  It was a good conference, two full days, and I learned a lot and met a number of smart and interesting people.  For me, the first speaker, Scott Berkun, set a positive tone for the weekend with his very first point:

       “Whoever uses the most jargon has the least confidence in their ideas.”

       In short, words matter. Amen.

       My name is David Byrd, a doctoral student in the Information and Interaction Design Program at the University of Baltimore in the United States.  I’ve got two classes and a dissertation to go until graduation. I am not a traditional student.  First, at 54, I’m a bit (read: a lot) older than my classmates, and probably most of you reading this.  Also, I work full-time as a researcher and writer, with some project management on the side—but not in the tech industry. My academic background is in journalism, history, political science, and international studies; math gives me a headache, and I did little to nothing in computer science, or even interaction design or information architecture, before I came to Baltimore. Even my avocation, photography, is a “soft” skill. So, essentially, I am a Liberal Arts guy by disposition and training, in a world—especially here at ACM—populated by techies and STEM types.

       So, of course, that’s why I agreed to write this, my first blog.  No matter the realm, words—plain, straightforward, concise—matter.  More broadly, the skills and perspectives of the liberal arts matter. At some point in this blog I might suggest taking a literature or creative writing class—both of which teach you how effective stories are told, or better enable you to empathize with the stories of others: for example, your customers or users. Knowing their stories is the first step to finding out what they want; being able to convey them the first step to selling your solution. Maybe I will say something about poetry—what else is poetry except finding the exact right word, delivered with the right rhythm and force? All of these attributes are important to information architecture, important to web design.

       It’s not just writing. The best photographs aren’t just images, they suggest or tell a story. Philosophy teaches us, among other things, different ways to look at the same problem.  Sociology provides a perspective on other cultures, and lets us know what’s important to them. History tells where people came from, and from this, perhaps, we can learn where they want to go.

       So I’ll jot down my experiences with these and other topics here, and try to show where it applies to the world of technology development. I think the perspective you receive will be a little different than most.

       I hope to hear from you, whether on Twitter or email, or drop us a comment at the blog.  Let me know what you think, whether I make sense, whether I’m off in left field somewhere, whether I shouldn’t write after that second glass of Pinot.  I can always use a little SOS in my endeavors, so just give me a shout.  Hopefully we can start a conversation that helps you as well as me.

Exploring Virtual Reality – Are We There Yet?

Virtual reality is the next hot technology. The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that allows you to see 3D worlds, is almost ready for consumers and developers are racing to come up with novel uses for it. Most of the ideas lean towards the entertainment realm. Video games have been a fertile ground for experimentation in the field of Virtual Reality. Adapting existing video games to Virtual Reality is a great first step to better understanding this technology, and what it can offer. But the technology could theoretically offer a lot more.

VR promises the ability to put humans into worlds and situations that would otherwise be impossible or too dangerous to experience. It does this by completely immersing the user’s vision with a video headset. This headset tracks their head movement, so that the user can look around naturally, adding to the immersion. Noise canceling headphones are often used to immerse the player’s hearing as well. The only thing that the user can see or hear is what the designer wants them to see. This can be incredibly powerful in the hands of a creative and talented designer.

This is different from Augmented Reality in an important detail. While Virtual Reality completely blocks out the outside world, Augmented Reality creates an overlay on the existing world. This could be used to keep meta-information about the environment available, such as directions to a location, or weather information. Recently Microsoft has announced the HoloLens, which will allow players to turn any room into a gaming space. At E3 2015, Microsoft demoed their HoloLens with Minecraft, showing how players could play in multiplayer worlds, and even change aspects of the world with voice commands.

But AR tech is still in its infancy. The HoloLens is a huge leap forward, but it’s clear that VR tech is where most of the developer resources are going. For this article, we’ll be talking mostly about VR. But AR isn’t going away, and what could VR and AR look like in 5-10 years?

In this article, I want to look at how current experiences are being adapted to VR, how successful those experiences are, and specific deficiencies that designers will need to improve before the technology can reach its full potential.

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ACM CHI PLAY 2015: XRDS insider’s view!


CHI PLAY 2015 is the second edition of the ACM SIGCHI Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play. It is an international and interdisciplinary conference for researchers and professionals of all areas of play, games, and human-computer interaction, which fosters discussion of current high quality research in games and HCI as foundations for the future of digital play. This year the conference took place in London, UK, from the 5th to the 7th of October. Continue reading