UX in Virtual Reality - using immersive tools to gather user data

Using free software librarians in Sweden asked users to immerse themselves in a virtual environment and create 'a perfect library'.

Virtual reality has been around since at least the 1960s when Morton Heilig patented his Telesphere Mask (see picture) – one of the earliest examples of headtracking stereoscopic projection. VR has continued to develop but over the years its main application has been entertainment.

Today, virtual reality is no longer considered a gimmick. It is being used to provide professional training in a wide variety of fields from architecture to healthcare; by psychologists to treat phobias; and in elder care. VR technology is truly immersive yet still full of unexplored potential.

So what is the potential of VR to libraries, both public and academic?

Introducing the UXVR Project
User eXperience in Virtual Reality (UXVR) is a project for user data gathering using classical UX methods implemented in a VR environment. By combining guerrilla interviews, cognitive mapping and touchstone tours in a virtual setting we have managed to collect plenty of useful data from all types of users. The project also had the additional perk of introducing expensive but topical technology to users who normally lack access to it.

The original purpose of the UXVR project was simply to explore the usability of VR technology in a library setting, with the parallel ambition to somehow use it as a reciprocal communication tool. That is, not only use it for typical demonstrations but primarily as a data-gathering device, in an attempt to go beyond the traditionally unilateral model of educational software. The idea that eventually sprouted was to let people meddle with, move around, destroy and create the library itself. With a VR headset at hand, we set out to find the easiest way to model the library room in 3D and a way to manipulate it in VR.

We used free and easy-to-learn software like Sketchup and Blender for the 3D modelling, based on floor plans that we had previously procured for behavioural mapping. After some trial and error, we managed to create and to load a textureless and unfurnished model of the library space into Tilt Brush. Tilt Brush is Google's room-scale 3D painting software (and loads of fun). Because it already had all the functionality required, we were good to go once we managed to convert our model into a compatible format. We left the model colourless and empty so as not to impose any ideas about what a library should be to the users, but also because we did not want to waste too much time and effort on time-consuming modelling before we had tried it in action. We then invited users to come try it out, and let them get familiarised with the controls and interface of the Vive until they were comfortable enough to navigate and modify their environment autonomously. Then we gave them a delimited task: To create a great library for themselves. The assignment was deliberately vague; within the boundaries of their mission they were free to do exactly what they wanted, with the explicit instruction that there were no rights nor wrongs.

Refining the process
After some initial testing, we soon realised that the VR experience allowed for rather sprawling outputs, and that we needed them to narrate their actions and choices. This allowed the librarian in charge of the session to take notes and to keep track of the users’ sometimes-meandering line of thought, as well as to enquire about the importance of particular library features as they added, removed or changed them. Much of what the users did was rather abstract, but once we enquired about what their work might express, it spurred both ideas as well as monologues about complex feelings towards the library as they sought their answers. Thus, in parallel with communicating abstract ideas and feelings about the library space in a creative way, the time spent using the Vive proved to be a perfect opportunity for interviews of varying depth.

The data gathered from this initial project concerned a wide variety of topics; the most common being food in the library, sound or noise and places to study. The attitudinal data showed that there is a lot of affection for the library as a place, and that many of our visitors have a very personal relationship to the library. The more negative feelings seems to arise in the sometimes conflicting requirements of different categories of visitors, where for example the needs of small children to play and discover can clash with students’ need for silence. Both groups showed great creativity in suggesting possible solutions to this dilemma, and overall showed great understanding for the needs of other groups of visitors. The ideas generated by the users themselves ranged from abstract ideas like a wormhole for quick transportation to the library, to concrete and easily implemented ideas like dedicated study rooms. Naturally, a lot of the feedback concerned the VR experience on its own, with a vast majority stating that VR technology has a natural place in the library.

Going forward, we are looking to develop this project for easy set-up at any given library, as well as to give the user the possibility to move around ready-made objects. We are also looking into the possibility to record in mixed reality - that is to say, to project the user in the virtual world - to be able to present the sessions in a way that enables viewers to better understand what is going on on-screen.

In summary, the possibilities of the virtual world are virtually endless. We do not even have to obey Euclidian physics but can design an infinite room that the user can traverse in a finite space. Therefore, when experimenting with VR, it is important to remind oneself that the ambition should not be to emulate reality but rather to explore the possibilities of a world where we get to decide, or rather do away with, the rules.

Victor Alfson is the Librarian, Stockholm City Library, Sweden.