Virtual Reality and Skeuomorphism

Remember skeuomorphism? It’s the idea that the user interface of a program needs to resemble a physical a physical device to help people understand how to use it. Skeuomorphism is not just a software thing, however. Things like faux wooden panels on cars and molded clay rivets on pottery are great examples of physical skeuomorphism. However, most people will recall the way that Apple used skeuomorphism in the iOS when they hear the term.

Scott Forrestal was the genius behind the skeuomorphism in iOS for many years. Things like adding a fake leather header to the Contacts app, the wooden shelves in the iBooks library, and the green felt background in the Game Center app are the examples that stand out the most. Forrestal used skeuomorphism to help users understand how to use apps on the new platform. Users needed to be “trained” to touch the right tap targets or to feel more familiar with an app on sight.

Skeuomorphism worked quite well in iOS for many years. However, when Jonny Ive took over as the lead iOS developer, he started phasing out skeuomorphism starting in iOS 7. With the advent of flat design, people didn’t want fake leather and felt any longer. They wanted vibrant colors and integrated designs. As Apple (and others) felt that users had been “trained” well enough, the decision was made to overhaul the interface. However, skeuomorphism is poised to make a huge comeback.

Virtual Fake Reality

The place where skeuomorphism is about to become huge again is in the world of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). VR apps aren’t just limited to games. As companies start experimenting with AR and VR, we’re starting to see things emerge that are changing the way we think about the use of these technologies. Whether it be something as simple as using the camera on your phone combined with AR to measure the length of a rug or using VR combined with a machinery diagram to teach someone how to replace a broken part without the need to send an expensive technician.

Look again at the video above of the AR measuring app. It’s very simple, but it also displays a use of skeuomorphism. Instead of making the virtual measuring tape a simple arrow with a counter to keep track of the distance, it’s a yellow box with numbers printed every inch. Just like the physical tape measure that it is displayed beside. It’s a training method used to help people become acclimated to a new idea by referencing a familiar object. Even though a counter with tenths of an inch would be more accurate, the developer chose to help the user with the visualization.

Let’s move this idea along further. Think of a more robust VR app that uses a combination of eye tracking and hand motions to give access to various apps. We can easily point to what we want with hand tracking or some kind of pointing device in our dominant hand. But what if we want to type? The system can be programmed to respond if the user places their hands palms down 4 inches apart. That’s easy to code. But how to do tell the user that they’re ready to type? The best way is to paint a virtual keyboard on the screen, complete with the user’s preferred key layout and language. It triggers the user to know that they can type in this area.

How about adjusting something like a volume level? Perhaps the app is coded to increase and reduce volume if the hand is held with fingers extended and the wrist rotated left or right. How would the system indicate this to the user? With a circular knob that can be grasped and manipulated. The ideas behind these applications for VR training are only limited by the designers.


Tom’s Take

VR is going to lean heavily on skeuomorphism for many years to come. It’s one thing to make a 2D user interface resemble an amplifier or a game table. But when it comes to recreating constructs in 3D space, you’re going to need to train users heavily to help them understand the concepts in use. Creating lookalike objects to allow users to interact in familiar ways will go a long way to helping them understand how VR works as well as helping the programmers behind the system build a user experience that eases VR adoption. Perhaps my kids or my grandkids will have VR and AR systems that are less skeuomorphic, but until then I’m more than happy to fiddle with virtual knobs if it means that VR adoption will grow more quickly.