The Virtual Reality of Design / by David Hu

I read an article on Ars Technica (linked here) about Oculus, an in-development virtual reality platform, and a particular paragraph struck me:

"Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe suggested that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg might not have gone far enough, saying that virtual reality 'actually may be the final compute platform.'

The journey that has taken computing from mainframes to PCs to laptops to mobile phones could have a few more intermediary steps in the future, such as smartwatches, Iribe allowed. But, he said, 'once you replace vision with a very comfortable virtual vision that you can look around in—that you get the sense of presence, you believe is real and is comfortable—if you can have this collaborative social experience where my brain truly believes we're in a virtual place together and that you're right here in front of me even if you're not, this is the ultimate platform and this is what we've been imagining for so many years. The Holy Grail.'"

What is not really in doubt is the validity of Iribe's argument. But what is interesting, and perhaps significant, to explore is the effect this will have on the field of design. Currently, we know that video games are created by a team of storywriters, conceptual artists, programmers, and, of course, game designers. They create virtual objects, virtual people, and virtual worlds: things that each imitate—but in exponentially elevated forms—similar physical counterparts.

For the sake of argument, let's presume a couple of things:

  • We will eventually create a future virtual world that can provide accurate feedback to our senses.
  • We will still require the things that allow us to live and survive, like food.

Furthermore, we will set aside the apocalyptic visions of "living virtually" as showcased in many sci-fi movies. My focus here is solely on the implications of an all-around virtual world on design. What happens when the former becomes so compelling that we place more value on virtual objects than on physical objects? If the things that attracts us, compels us to spend money, and brings us great enjoyment all exist in the virtual world, what importance is left in the physical objects that we create?

I foresee diminishing value in many of the consumer products that we often crave or take for granted. Why spend money on a designer chair when you can buy a digital one and touch the virtual leather? Why buy a superbly sculpted car when you can sit in an even wilder and faster car without worrying about its physical limitations and consequences? Not to mention that in a virtual world, nearly unlimited options are at one's disposal at anytime. If the market need is there, would current product designers give up designing physical objects for virtual ones, especially when it also holds the promise of not expending physical resources (besides those to run the program and the computers); of unlimited trial and error and variations; and, possibly, of much more financial gain? What if we extended this inquiry from products to brands?

From a brand perspective, a dwindling need for physical products and perhaps even physical interactions means brands will increasingly be communicated digitally. What is left of a brand that's traditionally physical when it becomes completely virtual? Do we become disconnected from its history? Can a brand even build loyalty exclusively through a virtual world? Branding, at its heart, is an exercise of creating a virtual reality. Strategists, marketers, designers, and others work together to give life to and maintain what is basically a virtual lifestyle for consumers to aspire to. Logos don't live physically anymore. They're not the signatures that they once were before the digital age; they now simply manifest in physical products where applicable. Their only permanence lies in the fact that they can be infinitely duplicated—by anyone and on anything.

For products that we buy because they are reflective of ourselves (e.g. fashion), what will become of them if we no longer need them on our persons? What if the only fashion we are willing to buy exists online because our avatars are more presentable or, we feel, more representative of who we are? Couldn't any designer with the right coding, then, be able to create things that surpass those in "virtual quality" made by established brands? And if the latter becomes true, perhaps virtual reality is not simply the "final compute platform", but also the final step in democratizing design. But I'm not sure I would be willing to accept that without a fight.

I want to believe that design is meant to be, first and foremost, physical. So that it would be constrained by physical limitations and that we designers are challenged by these limitations. I want physicality to give birth to variations, however minute, because it is too easy to duplicate exactly in the virtual world, even in light of the infinite possibilities. Why? Because the real world works this way. Limitation is the one thing that makes us human; the omnipresence of the human limit makes us designers want to be designers. Limitation gives us goals for us to exceed and to be disappointed about when we don't achieve them. Virtual reality, at its most ideal, takes that away. It's not the power of virtual reality that I fear, but rather its infiniteness.