“Wow!” is the usual response on trying VR for the first time. Even after spending hours in a headset, the experience is still extraordinary.
From a designer’s point of view, VR introduces a range of new challenges, but it also frees us from some of the problems we’ve wrestled with for years; any notion of a viewport is entirely moot.
15 years ago, Adobe (née Macromedia) Flash was similarly revolutionary. Flash was browser-agnostic, and (virtually) identical across all platforms. It raised expectations of the web from simple text, to experiences. In a time before the web standards movement was mainstream, when every browser implemented not only its own interpretation, but its own syntax for CSS, Flash was liberating.
[pullquote]Flash’s greatest strength…was also its downfall[/pullquote]
There are numerous parallels between Flash technology and VR, the most apparent is the initial emphasis on gaming, and upon simple linear presentations. Flash eventually developed to produce rich, interactive, data-based experiences; it’s reasonable to think that VR will develop in a similar way.
Ultimately, Flash’s greatest strength—its encapsulated nature—was also its downfall. Without a way to reinterpret data that was so closely integrated with its presentation, accessibility was complex, and limiting. The oft-stated belief (commonly repeated now in reference to VR) was that Flash was inherently a visual medium, and as such couldn’t be accessible. The most cost-effective solution was to develop a non-Flash version in parallel with the “main” Flash site.
Accessible VR is perhaps even harder to achieve. However, imagine a VR setup in which touch is enabled—perhaps with gloves containing points that vibrate to simulate physical contact. A person—visually impaired or otherwise—could experience work by Richard Sera, or the death mask of Tutankhamun, or Hampton Court maze, with just their hands. VR has the potential to be far more accessible than the current web, because we experience VR in a manner very similar to the way in which we experience the real world; with accessible VR, vision is a progressive enhancement.
[pullquote]with accessible VR, vision is a progressive enhancement[/pullquote]
The beginning of the end for Flash was Apple’s decision to block the Flash Player on iOS. Security and performance were cited as reasons, but the truth is probably that enabling SWFs on the iPhone would enable a rival app store revenue stream, that Apple couldn’t take a bite of. (The current iPhone has NFC blocked except for Apple Pay; security is blamed, but the monopoly on payments can’t hurt.) It’s interesting that Oculus, in the vanguard of VR technology, won’t produce a Mac version, stating Apple’s machines simply aren’t powerful enough. And so, VR may face a similar format dispute to Flash, albeit with roles reversed.
Despite being principally a one-organization format, there were applications that output SWF files other than Adobe’s product range. There were rival products, Microsoft’s Silverlight for example. And there was an entire industry based around Flash templates, frameworks, and components.
VR is more diverse than a single format, but only just. While there are numerous technology companies working towards VR solutions, formats seem likely to merge. One of the most affordable headsets, the Samsung Gear, is already powered by Oculus. Templates, frameworks, and components appear to be on the way; only this week the React VR Pre-Release was made public.
Flash did some great things: the fluid approach to responsive design, fine typography on the web, experience-centred design, were all pioneered by Flash designers. VR has the potential to be a similar catalyst for radical change. But to be viable in the long term, VR needs to do what Flash could not: it needs to embrace inclusive design, and if possible, accessibility; it needs to resist the pull towards a single format; and above all, it needs a set of VR standards—comparable to web standards—that designers and developers are prepared to defend.
Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.