Doug North Cook is developing one of the world’s first immersive media degree programs at Chatham University where he is an assistant professor. He spends his summers at the Fallingwater Institute running week-long design residencies for architects and immersive design professionals at Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic home. One of his latest VR experiences, Writing the End, a short experimental narrative piece made with artist Liz Edwards is out now on Rift and Go. Doug and Liz’s upcoming narrative work is focused on voice interaction and leverages VR creative tools to their maximum potential.
When attempting to find a method for approaching immersive design I found so many that didn’t work. I struggled through my own failures and successes in prototypes, in released projects, and through teaching courses to students with no background in VR. After learning from failure and difficulty, I have arrived at some guiding principles for immersive design, held loosely, but consulted often. The idea I am often drawn back to is this: designing experiences for immersive platforms is most akin to designing real-world experiences. Designing for virtual realities means learning how to design for reality. Let’s break this idea down into two categories and introduce two of the voices that ring constantly in my head.
The building blocks of both immersive design and architecture are fixed in the effort of creating space. The products of architecture—think corporate buildings designed for long work hours, or sprawling McMansions—can often be dehumanizing. If you spend any time talking to people outside of the immersive design world you will hear the same fears about technology. There are real fears that immersive platforms will cause people to become isolated, sedentary, and lost in virtual unreality. These fears are a reminder of the power that creating space, either physical or virtual, can have a profound impact on those in it.
If you have spent time in any of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings you know the incredible effect his designs have on the visitor’s sense of self, emotions, and desire for movement. Teaching design residency programs at his iconic Fallingwater has embedded in me a deep appreciation for his approach to humanizing space. His approach to what he calls “organic design” has become a guide for me. Wright describes his approach to bringing human scale and machine methods together:
“What now is organic "design"? Design appropriate to modern tools, the machine, and this new human scale. Thus, design was opportune, and well within the architect's creative hand if his mind was receptive to these relatively new values: moving perception at this time with reverential spirit toward the understanding of the "nature of nature." The nature of the machine, studied by experiment and basically used in structural design, was still to be limited to a tool, and proved to be a powerful new medium of expression… Never did I allow the machine to become "motif—always machine for man and never man for the machine. ”
Wright says that he came to this understanding in 1893. This idea that design should be at a human scale, in accordance with the capabilities of the machine and materials is still revolutionary. The human scale he writes about is new, and we also have a new human scale. It demands a progressive movement that sees the scale unfixed and rapidly changing. As soon as we feel at peace with our approach to building we should feel unsettled because the scale has most likely shifted already.
Designing for immersive platforms is a challenge of keeping pace with the changes in technology and software while also building empathy with users. If we are to design for our new human scale we’ll need some more tools.
Second: Product Design.
Don Norman’s book “The Design of Everyday Things” proposes a detailed method for approaching human-centered design that transcends his own field (find more of his writing, and some great essays, here: https://www.jnd.org/ ). He is famous for his critiques of poorly designed doors that don’t give the user insight into how they should be opened. Here is a brief overview of his seven design principles as applied to a VR-specific example. If you haven’t tried any of the experiences listed I recommend you give them a try and think about how these ideas are present.
This is just the beginning of what human-centered design practices can provide to us in the way of theory and structure. It can help provide a structure for thinking deeply about designing for our new human scale.
Last: Immersive Design
We can look to other design disciplines that have deep roots and traditions to help ground our work. This must still be done in the spirit of experimentation, prototyping, and innovation. There is an incredible opportunity to address the legitimate concerns surrounding the capacity that immersive technology has, when used or designed poorly, to make us less than we are. We can create experiences that empower and humanize us in ways that other technologies do not. We can define a new human scale that is fixed to the expansiveness of immersive platforms.
What does this mean in practice? Here’s a few ideas:
You can find Doug on twitter @dougnorthcook , and on Oculus as dougnorthcook or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org