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  • Writer's pictureSarica Robyn

Virtual Reality and the Future for Design

The phenomenon of Virtual Reality is taking the tech world by storm. In the last month alone, Facebook revealed a new virtual reality headset, Oculus Go, competing against Daydream View by Google and Samsung Gear. The ‘World’s first VR Cinema’ in Amsterdam continues to screen VR films and companies are increasingly utilising Oculus technology to create 360° online platforms.

Then, on 7th October 2017, The Guardian posted a video called The Party, a VR film in which a viewer can ‘experience’ autism through the eyes of an autistic girl named Layla. The setting is a surprise birthday party in which the viewer experiences how Layla is challenged by her environment, providing insight into the difficulties of everyday life for those suffering from autism.

This VR film is one of many new ventures that offers a first-person experience of reality –another step in the direction of technology harnessing the power of embodied presence. Indeed, such technology can spell a radical new future for ethnographic work by capturing social relations of identity, gender and self through the eyes of the subject.

A salient example of such work is the VR film, Notes for my Father, that documents the narrative of an Indian female human-trafficking survivor. The film includes scenes in which the viewer feels objectified by a male gaze when positioned in a train carriage with only male passengers. Due to the immersive sensory first-person perspective of the film, the viewer experiences the male gaze and the associated sexism, misogyny and objectification felt by the female protagonist as if the viewer were the protagonist herself.

Extensive work has been conducted on the gaze in Western discourse from Sartre to Foucault, particularly the way in which it has been imbued with relations of power that emphasise the dichotomy between the observer and the observed. A specific example is Mulvey’s (1972) work that explores the ‘male gaze’ towards women by male spectators in film, noting how patriarchy is embodied within the act of looking.

Yet, VR films go decidedly further than theorisation on the gaze. The ability to embody the female experience and literally step into the shoes of a woman in a VR film is arguably unparalleled by any other medium. These films offer a powerful resource for those seeking to capture the experiences of their subjects within sociocultural contexts.

Immersive experience and the future for design

There is considerable overlap between ethnographic work and design research and accordingly, the importance of VR for design is highly relevant. Akin to the ethnographic methods by which anthropologists investigate why certain aspects of a society are meaningful for its members, designers observe people’s experiences in the real world to gain insight into consumer needs that form the basis of design projects.

Indeed, VR technology can harness design thinking and innovative methods in such a way that designers can create narratives based on a deep understanding of their audience.

VR can offer designers emotionally engaging tools that bring to life key insights through which one can understand user perspectives. Just as Notes for my Father harnessed the ability to embody the female experience, design companies can utilise VR to truly understand consumer desires and correspondingly, build empathy towards their audience.

At a recent visit to London’s Design Museum, I was particularly struck by a mug designed for a person suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Unlike normal crockery, this mug had a rotating handle such that even if its user’s hand shook, the mug itself would remain stable and the liquid inside would not spill over.

Virtual reality experiences can hence grant designers unique insights into the way in which consumers interact with things in their natural environment.

The company Foolproof, for instance, has recently detailed its use of immersive content in a case study with Suzuki in which it created an online consumer experience where visual stimuli were utilised, such as 360° images of each bike. By showcasing the bikes from every angle, customers were granted an immersive online experience. Research at Foolproof also found that ‘emotions plays an important part in the bike buying process’ (Foolproof, 2017). Accordingly, their immersive content effectively integrated consumer insights with design research.

Immersive content and VR can spell a new era for design research and yield new consumer insights. The more we pay attention to this new phenomenon, the more we can truly understand our audience.

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