We live surrounded by messages and we consume them everyday in private and public spaces. Communication streams hit us everywhere from the brands of the clothing we wear to signs on the street, instructions on the oven, traffic lights, etc. Anywhere the eye can see it’s likely to see an ad or intentional message. MDI estimates a normal American consumes around 4,000 to 5,000 ads a day but that doesn’t even count all the other visual clues and indicators we see and seek with a purpose (i.e directions, bathroom signs, exit signs, etc.).
In this abundance of messages we have learned to navigate through them and we have almost become numb to their effects. Just like users tend to ignore banners online we ignore street signs if we know where we’re going or we ignore traffic lights if we are not driving. All these messages visually clutter our environment by targeting everybody when in reality they are only relevant to some of them. With the arrival and spread of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality a few things can be expected to change.
At the risk of describing a dystopian future I believe traditional communication platforms will be the first to feel the burn with the arrival of these new devices and that they will soon affect the design of private and public spaces as we know them.
How — Information depth in Mixed Reality
To disrupt everyday communication platforms and therefore our living spaces, Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality devices will need to follow a series of principles and perceptive rules so users can immediately assimilate how they work and see its value. Just like with any other new device the golden rule will be familiarity plus progressive enhancement. Find a hook and little by little it will become a habit. To achieve this I believe Mixed Reality devices will operate at three different levels of our reality.
1. Anchored to your view
Your most personal space ever that won’t ever be occupied by anything other than what the user decides (maybe notifications / alerts).
2. Anchored to objects to reveal contextual info.
Objects will trigger their own interfaces depending on the user and their intent. For example the interior of a car will be different if you are the person driving it or sitting in the passenger seat.
3. Anchored to physical spaces to reveal extra info.
Street signs, landmarks and any other physical representation will potentially be enriched by MR and AR.
From context to intent — A mindset change
Since the users are the platform themselves physical spaces will no longer need to be designed around static platforms and the contextual clues that normally feed UX studies will become irrelevant. Context (demographic information, time of day, location, etc) will no longer be the only source of information used to define UX.
A given space can have distinct meanings to different people. When designing spaces different types of use are prioritized and that is translated into its design. Take an airport for example, its primary goal is to get people through a series of planned steps (checking to boarding) and its spatial design and signage is articulated accordingly.
However the goal of a given space is not always that clear and its type of use isn’t either. What’s relevant to you if you are in the middle of a street? Everybody around you shares the same geographical context but depending on their purpose their attention will be focused on different aspects. Are you looking for a subway station or are you waiting to cross a crosswalk? Different purposes will seek different signals.
With the introduction and mainstream adoption of MR devices the current paradigm is likely to experience a structural change. As soon as the individual people become the platform, physical spaces will no longer need to display lots of messages for different uses. Instead, users will shape their space according to their current intent, independent from their geographical context. Walking in the street will be a different experience if you are trying to find a restaurant or if are trying to catch a Pokemon.
Private spaces are also designed based on contextual assumptions. Apartments for example are organized according to the most common living patterns (sleep, rest, leisure, dine). Most living rooms for instance are organized around entertainment- last century it was the radio and more recently it’s been the television.
Cars are probably the best example of contextually designed physical layout due to their limited space and capabilities (mi4 car interaction with map). Traditionally there are up to 3 main roles in a car, the driver, the passenger, and the cargo. The driver needs focus and has total control, the passenger shares some controls with the driver (complementary to the driving experience) like maps, music and heating and AC and the passengers in the back seats have no control whatsoever and only sometimes have their own individual entertainment sets.
Cars dashboard and interior experiences are defined by their physical limitations. Now let’s imagine how AR/MR devices could help ease the cognitive load of driving a car. How would a car look if we could define controls and indicators based on your intent? I bet it would be less cluttered and more focused since it wouldn’t need to show every single control at all times. Also voice activated UI will alleviate the cognitive load of presenting every single choice all at once.
By looking at the user intent each space can become what the user requires at a given time with no room for interpretation or messaging hierarchy needed. Intent is ultimately the most accurate description of the user needs and the physical world should be the canvas users look at to meet those needs (instead of their phones).
Why might this happen?
The internet made real targeted marketing possible and created better ways to target relevant users with more personal and behaviour based messages. It created digital spaces and introduced new financial models (CPC) helping advertisers getting the most roi out of their budget.
Advertising, for better or worse, will play as big of a role with MR devices as it has done with the internet over the years. With the arrival and popularization of MR, digital spaces will finally break out their physical constraints and find a place out in our world. Media companies will jump at the opportunity to finally being able to talk to the right users in the right places.
2.The Final step to Owning the ecosystem.
Big tech companies are trying to engage customers throughout their most common living scenarios. I.e. Apple has Carplay, Homekit and has pushed for Apple TV since 2007. Google on the other side has Android TV, Android Car and NEST. In the quest for being present throughout the user’s life, tech giants have put their efforts into creating as many devices as necessary to reach the user wherever he’s at, (home, transportation, on the go, exercising). The flexibility and portability of MR devices will render all those devices obsolete making it easier for these companies to be omnipresent.
3.The burden of owning multiple physical platforms
For the most part users update many devices at home once in awhile. A new TV, faster phone, and more powerful computers are just examples. Marketing tells customers they are major breakthroughs in innovation with each new iteration but reality says their evolution is closer to sales cycles than it is to true innovation. While planned obsolescence is not going to go away, a MR device could unify many of the devices we use throughout our day therefore simplifying the device ecosystem we are part of.
Collateral effects on society
If we entertain the idea of communication platforms becoming obsolete, how would that affect us anyway? Back in 1964 Marshall McLuhan suggested that not only the content being delivered by the media affected society but that the medium in which that content was delivered and its characteristics were also affecting society. The internet is a good example of this theory. The mere existence of the medium and its characteristics (immediate transmission and consumption of information anywhere in plenty of affordable devices that allow consumption and creation), is far more important to define the current society than the messages transmitted through it.
With that in mind, if we are able to detach the medium from its physical stationary platforms and liberate public and private spaces of the burden of hosting these devices (tvs, computers, billboards, etc.), what effect would that have in our society? How would “restructuring our living spaces” impact the definition of our society and its members?
Personal shared spaces and privacy
Considering experiences are better enjoyed when shared with others the adoption of MR/AR would also redefine how social events are experienced in a group. A physical shared space in a group would not be fully shared since each individual would be able to define the space based on their personality, intent and needs. How much of that digital entity is shared among users vs what other parts are strictly private would be up to each person.
As we expand our digital profile to our physical reality those levels of privacy would define what other users know about us and also what 3rd parties could use to better target their messages to us. If you find yourself on the hunt for Thai food in the middle of the city and as part of your profile you indicated you’re allergic to nuts the results displayed in your field of view should be defined by your needs.
A clutter free world
One of the most exciting prospects of this future scenario is the idea of removing persistent callouts from the urban layout. What would a city without billboards look like? What could be defined as an essential part of our cities if we could redefine them without the burden of indicators, marketing callouts, traffic signals and any other unnecessary message now present?
Advertising was first introduced to the Times Square area in the early 1920s. Since then Times Square has become almost a pilgrimage destination for tourist visiting NYC from all over the world. What once was considered advertising today has become part of the culture and identity of the city. When MR/AR devices become mainstream, will we consider Times Square a vintage reminiscence of a past time?
What will happen when people are able to individually recreate visual experiences equally as impressive or without the need of a physical set up?
And specifically when looking at private spaces…