Designing for the Unbuilt.

Using Oculus Rift for Rapid Prototyping.

Derek Fridman
March 28, 2014

The acquisition of Oculus, a Kickstarter-nurtured VR headset manufacturer, by Facebook has set off a firestorm of protest by hard-core PC gamers and funders who feel personally betrayed. The headsets were supposed to be a platform for wholly immersive gaming experiences and not, as the Guardian put it “about peer-through simulacra of distant relatives’ new kitchen windows.” Facebook’s own announcement of the $2 billion acquisition says they plan to “extend Oculus’ existing advantage in gaming to new verticals, including communications, media and entertainment, education and other areas.”

While it’s unclear exactly what the future of Oculus holds post-acquisition (the company has only released a developer kit thus far), the headset opens up non-gaming possibilities today. More than hypothetical possibilities, Huge is already using the headset to help combat today’s design challenges. The Oculus Rift is a powerful tool for pre-visualization, allowing us to design for spaces that don’t yet exist.

Last year, Huge began to experiment with the headset to build virtual environments based on client blueprints for their retail experiences. Understanding the layout, flow and 3-dimensional space of physical stores that have not yet been built allows us to design better digital experiences within those environments. 

The wide field of view and virtual reality of Oculus is one of the best ways we’ve found to understand the relationship between physical space and digital experiences in a way that feels nearly real (if not entirely tactile – yet). The Oculus allows us to develop rapid prototypes of digital experiences, allowing our internal teams and clients to visualize the end-state while we’re still mid-stream in design. 

One example is the work we did with Canadian sporting goods retailer SportChek. Huge was tasked with designing several in-store digital experiences. These included “endless aisles” that gave shoppers the ability to browse the retailer’s entire product catalogue and real-time in-store inventory. The second were gesture-based multi-screen walls that deliver large format educational product content and tutorials. The video walls varied in size (both in terms of width and height), and were comprised of 47-inch seamlessly tiled displays powered by Stratacache.

Without being able to stand in the physical space, it’s difficult to predict if certain design elements will work. For instance, is the font the right size for legibility? Is the imagery too overwhelming? Will the screens be entirely visible to shoppers or partially hidden behind a rack? Being able to test elements like buttons, interface design and the ergonomics of the experience in a virtual environment not only saves us time, but also saves us from making costly mistakes. 

From a cost perspective, it’s prohibitively expensive to build the screens during the design phase that would replicate what it would be like in the store. Using Oculus, we’re able to understand how the digital elements work in situ. Across multiple disciplines, including UX, development and visual design, we had the opportunity to understand SportChek’s space before going there. 

"Oculus frees us to reimagine the retail space as experience venue, breaking down the barriers between architecture, interior design and digital strategy."

When it came time to install, there was very little we had to change. We already knew not just the specs, such as how tall and wide the screens are, but how they would integrate into the overall physical environment. 

How the Facebook acquisition will change that is unclear. Certainly, the cash infusion allows the company to get better products to market faster. The second release of the development kit not only has a greater level of fidelity but also increased depth perception, letting the user physically lean into a virtual environment. Future releases may likely include gesture input capabilities, similar to Sony's VR headset, that lets the user impact the experience with their hands.

While prognosticators wring their hands about the future of FaceWorld, the design applications for Oculus Rift are available today. The virtual environments we can build based on real world specs, at low cost, allow us to design, test and iterate without a single physical install. Our ability to integrate the look and feel of the digital experience into that of a brick-and-mortar store allows for a more cohesive aesthetic experience in the real world. 

The true power of Oculus is its ability to bridge the gap between the digital and real world. It’s not hard to see the potential for uses on other sectors as well, such as healthcare, education, and the military. For designers, Oculus frees us to reimagine the retail space as experience venue, breaking down the barriers between architecture, interior design and digital strategy.

* With Marissa Gluck, Director, Huge Ideas.