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Pioneering a new era of VR: Interactive UI

February 1, 2024
min read
Pioneering a new era of VR: Interactive UI

By Bianca Paulescu, Multimedia Designer

In a recent blog post, my colleague Darran highlighted the imminent arrival of the 'third generation of VR'. This advancement promises enhanced sensations of immersion and comfort, courtesy of groundbreaking technologies like holography. This generational shift in hardware will then have a positive impact on user interfaces (UI) and, in particular, one design philosophy that I believe will reshape the way we engage with the VR world: diegetic UI.

What is diegetic UI?

Diegetic UI, in the realm of user interface design, refers to elements that seamlessly integrate into the user's environment or context. Typically, games use traditional on-screen menus or overlays. However, with diegetic UI design, elements exist within the player's world providing information or functionality that feels inherent to the player's context.

A designer may use objects within the virtual world to display important information. For example, I created a concept image showcasing a VR game where the player uses a navigation device to display quest objectives, an element that is normally shown in the heads-up display (HUD).

Game concept by Bianca Paulescu

By eliminating the need for a HUD, it allows the game designer to reimagine a menu system which makes better use of diegetic elements. This can be a more engaging way for players to check information without breaking the sense of immersion.

Why is this important in VR?

Existing game engines often focus on providing UI/UX solutions that might involve traditional 2D menus or overlays within the VR space. These frameworks may not prioritise the integration of UI elements into the environment as much as diegetic UI does.

Diegetic UI, on the other hand, emphasises a more immersive approach by embedding UI elements directly into the VR world, making them feel like an inherent part of the user's surroundings. This differs from existing frameworks that might rely more on conventional UI practices, potentially creating a divide between the virtual environment and the UI elements by using separate screens or menus that can disrupt immersion.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that a 2D map overlay typically appears on a separate screen, disrupting immersion by feeling disconnected from the virtual surroundings. However, with diegetic UI, integrating the map into the virtual environment provides an opportunity for established game franchises to explore VR adaptations. Personally, I find it exciting to imagine popular franchises seamlessly transitioning their game mechanics into VR, leveraging diegetic UI for more immersive and intuitive experiences.

Game concept idea by Bianca Paulescu

Why do current VR games use 2D HUD menus instead?

In VR games, the first-person perspective dominates, and diegetic UI design often relies on close-range interactions with small environmental objects as demonstrated with my concepts above. Current VR headsets, employing stereoscopic displays to give a 3D effect, are limited with regards to near-field interaction due to the vergence-accommodation conflict (VAC), wherein the eyes focus at one distance while converging at another. This limits the potential for experiences based on interactions within arms’ reach. This hardware constraint can hinder designers, yet computer-generated holography (CGH) presents a breakthrough by enabling arms’ reach interaction due to its capacity to project objects at varying depths within the user's field of view.

The third generation of VR will see a step change in UI design

In conclusion, the use of diegetic UI opens the door to a realm of new experiences where contextual information in games can feel like natural parts of virtual environments. VR games today struggle displaying content effectively at a close range due to VAC. As a result, this optical limitation forces designers to restrict the use of diegetic UI through handheld objects. With CGH, the possibilities are limitless – designers can place content at any distance, from very close to optical infinity, without making players feel nauseous. As holographic VR products enter the market, game designers will now possess an expansive canvas to craft groundbreaking, immersive experiences.