Designing for the Virtual Mind

Motion sickness, eye strain, drowsiness: these are just a small handful of things that VR creators need to be aware of when designing immersive worlds. Oculus shares a best practices guide that provides tips for how to reduce these physical discomforts, such as minimizing latency, adjusting field of view, and trying not to send your users through an endless series of upside down roller coasters.

It’s hard to find any documentation highlighting the possible emotional effects of VR, though. That might seem less important for now, but as VR creators, it is our responsibility to evaluate and respond to the physical and mental impact that our immersive worlds could have. Because VR is still in its infancy, it can be hard to understand or measure that impact.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t start researching now!



Imagine you are a burn victim. You’re lying on your hospital bed, anxiously awaiting the nurse to re-bandage you.

Before the pain sets in, you open your eyes to see that you are suddenly floating on a boat down an icy river, completely surrounded by a land covered in snow. You pass by a cluster of penguins hanging out on icy cliffs, and just below them you see a giant woolly mammoth taking a stroll. Suddenly a gang of snowmen start chucking snowballs right at you.

Within this time, you didn’t seem to notice that the nurse was changing your bandages; a procedure that usually triggers excruciating pain. That’s because you were present in a world other than your own.

Developed by a R&D lab in the late 1990’s, SnowWorld is the first VR environment designed for pain control. It was made not only to distract burn victims during treatment, but to also transform their perceptions through VR. SnowWorld is still being used today in hospitals across the world, and in many cases, has proven to be just as effective at pain control than morphine.

This is just one example that proves how powerful VR really is. Television, tablets, computers, and video games simply cannot provoke the level of presence that VR does. As VR creators, we can’t rely on past research or assumptions that have been applied to other digital platforms. So how can we begin to form best practices for VR design?

Let’s start off by looking into how virtual interfaces interact with the brain. 



We are all well aware that VR is great at making us feel immersed in another world. As VR creators, it is valuable to also understand how VR applications interact with our brains.

By referring to memories and cognitive patterns that we have developed throughout our lives, our brain is constantly interpreting the photons that transfer through our eyes. So when we throw on a head-mounted display, we process visual cues within the virtual world using the same neural circuits that we would in the real world.

High-level cognition areas in the front of the brain know that the virtual world isn’t real, but the back of our brain tricks us into thinking that it is. In fact, its trickery is so effective that VR can make people tumble and sweat even when walking across carpet because their mind is momentarily convinced that they are wobbling on a wooden plank hundreds of feet above a busy city street.

That means that both the real and virtual world can trigger nearly identical chemical reactions in the brain, even if the virtual one doesn’t look fully realistic. All of this contributes to the level of presence, which is ultimately responsible for evoking the same reactions and emotions as a real experience.”



After taking a look at how easily the human brain can adapt to the “virtual being”, there are some serious questions that we need to start asking earlier rather than later. Some of them include:

"Will interactions we learn in the virtual world carry over to the real world? How will this impact our natural behavior?"

"VR has been used to treat things like fear and PTSD, but is it capable of causing those?"

"Can virtual events/interactions provoke emotions we wouldn’t otherwise experience in the real world?"

"Can violence in VR provoke a user to grow more aggressive in the real world?" (As we all know, violence in video games is a heated topic, but violence in VR cannot be evaluated the same way due to a differentiating factor: presence. There's already plenty of shooter games in VR, so this will definitely be an important research area.) 


These questions are going to start off broad. During testing and research, they should be broken down into items that are measurable both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Of course, alongside the psychological impact of VR, it is still extremely important to test the physical effects of VR, like motion sickness and eye strain. Just be sure to give a good amount of attention to both areas.



Test Often and Reel in the 'VRgins'

If you’ve run testing sessions, you know how eye-opening even a single participant study can be. Make it a habit to test your virtual world on a regular basis, with all types of users--especially those that haven't tried it before (“VRgins”).

We don’t know how the public will react to VR, which is why it is crucial that you keep an open-mind to who you recruit for testing. We may discover that Group A responds significantly different to VR than Group B. It is our responsibility to factor that information into the next iteration of our designs.

Study up on Psychology and Neuroscience

Consider recruiting someone with a background in psychology or neuroscience. Research is such a critical step in the VR development process, but sometimes it can get crazy when a smaller team has to wear a lot of hats. It’s super helpful if someone with the expertise can devote their time to identifying how a VR experience impacts not just the body but also the brain.

Design for the Long Term

VR is awesome. My morning 'commute' the other day was flying through space in the Oculus DK2!

We get excited about this stuff, and that’s what drives this technology forward. But as we start to progress further in the VR world, it is important to ask ourselves “why” we are making certain design decisions and then questioning and researching what type of impact they may have:


Why are we implementing  [feature name]


What impact may this have on the user?


For Example: Why are we choosing to splatter blood on the camera when the player shoots a zombie? Which types of emotions does this trigger?

This is the same thought process that goes on in UX design for any type of platform: websites, apps, games. But it will be especially important for VR, since the design decisions we make can affect users on a deeper, mental level. 



It’s hard to predict how the public will respond to VR once headsets appear on store shelves. I am surrounded by people whose eyes light up as they preach ideas for VR, but there’s also a lot of people that are more hesitant.

While writing this article, I had a discussion about the future of technology with a man in a coffee shop. He expressed the fear that if people are present in virtual worlds for too long, they could lose touch with their real-life senses. We can’t prove this yet, but it is a valid fear to have.

So should we be terrified about VR? Will it turn us into the soulless humans in WALL-E? I don’t think so.

Poor WALL-E looks so concerned. Source: Pixar

Poor WALL-E looks so concerned. Source: Pixar

Right now, the opportunities outweigh the risks. Plus, VR is key to welcoming the transition to even more futuristic technologies (cough cough AR) that we can interact with minus a chunky brick strapped to our face.

As VR creators we must always keep the mind in mind as we envision our next creations and pave the way for mixed reality.

Eva Hoerth is a design engineer based in Seattle. She writes, tweets, and engages the community in VR. She is also obsessed with red pandas.