Should we design VR UI for health rather than convenience?

Posted by Matt Newport on 23 August 2016

Desk jobs are killing us. Quite literally - research has shown that sitting for more than 8 hours a day shortens your life by as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The news about the harmful effects of sitting continues to get worse as more research comes in. It now appears that the harmful effects of extended sitting cannot be undone by exercise.

Standing desks are an increasingly popular measure to try and avoid some of the risks of sitting to work all day (I use one) but standing without moving around does not actually improve health over sitting by all that much. The real key to avoiding the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle is to break up long periods of standing or sitting with frequent short bursts of activity and movement. Using a standing desk but taking a break every 20 minutes or so for 5 minutes of walking or other exercise (push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, etc.) seems to be the best current advice to avoid the health problems of a sedentary lifestyle but that can be a little impractical for most of us.

The health problems associated with desk jobs and office work don't end there however. RSI, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal problems are common among people who use keyboards and mice all day and can be debilitating and even career ending in extreme cases.

The sad fact is that the tools that many people today use for their daily work - a desktop or laptop computer with a keyboard and mouse or trackpad on top of a sitting desk - are not well designed for ergonomics or encouraging a healthy level of motion and activity during extended use. The physical interfaces we use for current computers come with historical baggage (e.g. the typewriter keyboard) and were not originally designed with ergonomics strongly in mind, nor for the level of daily use they commonly see now. More recent developments in ergonomics have improved the designs somewhat but we have barely begun to address the problems of designing for sedentary usage.

The standard paradigms in computer UI/UX design emphasize economy of movement and speed / efficiency (e.g. Fitts' law) but don't put much if any consideration into ergonomics or user activity levels. This is somewhat understandable given that the ergonomics are largely dictated by the standard physical interfaces of mouse and keyboard (or occasionally pen and touch screen).

Most current UI/UX advice in VR takes its design queues from desktop paradigms. It is common to see advice to offer seated modes (because people get tired standing up) and to avoid requiring the user to make large movements or lift their arms frequently (because it is tiring and slows the user down). This is not necessarily bad advice but I wonder if we should take the opportunity offered by this new platform with new input devices to come up with a UI/UX paradigm that encourages long term health, even if sometimes at the expense of short term convenience or speed.

Room scale VR with hand tracked controllers allows humans to interact with a virtual world using the same physical actions that we evolved to perform in the natural world. It lends itself naturally to standing interactions and to physically moving around a space. We have an opportunity to take the best modern science around ergonomics and activity levels conducive to long term health and design our VR UI/UX around principles that can naturally guide users to a healthy level of motion and activity whilst avoiding repetitive or awkward motions that might lead to musculoskeletal problems with extended use.

Currently many if not most VR experiences are enjoyed for relatively short periods of time but it is already easy to see the possibilities in the future for people spending hours a day using VR and AR for work and entertainment. Whether using VR content creation tools along the lines of Tilt Brush or Medium or using virtual desktops / workspaces with multiple virtual screens for tasks that are currently performed on a regular monitor it is quite possible, and I would argue likely, that people could spend nearly as much time in the future in VR as they currently do sitting using a computer at their desk.

As VR pioneers defining and discovering the basic paradigms and principles of UI/UX for VR we have the privilege and responsibility of defining the work environment of knowledge workers of the future. Where today's knowledge workers are largely stuck with the historical legacy of the desk, screen, keyboard, mouse and perhaps graphics tablet and all the attendant health issues we now know are associated with them, VR has the opportunity to redefine a new and healthier way to work.

I call on anyone working in VR UI/UX to consider designing with these issues in mind. Maybe we should be building UIs that encourage or perhaps require users to move around their play space for certain tasks (not the most frequent ones, but such that people will have to move at least every 10-15 minutes). Perhaps we should be encouraging users to stand and discouraging them from sitting (or even not offering a sitting mode). Perhaps UI actions that require users to make large movements with their arms or to squat or bend down should be embraced rather than avoided.

I'm not sure what the right balance is, and their are other complexities to consider such as accessibility for physically disabled users and for small children or the elderly but I really believe we should be designing VR UI/UX with as much focus on encouraging healthy movement for our users as on maximizing short term efficiency at the possible expense of long term health.