Inside VR Design is a pilot for what could become an ongoing series examining specific examples of great VR designs. Today we take a look at the interface of Electronauts to find out what makes it so perfectly usable.
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Electronauts is a music creation game from developer Survivors designed to make you easily feel like a skilled DJ, even if like me you don’t have a lot of musical talent. It is available on all major VR headsets; check out our full review here.
And while it’s easy to think that the game’s interface has little relevance outside of music, nothing could be further from the truth. the Electronauts The interface is cleverly designed from the ground up, and for reasons that have nothing to do with music.
This interface is based on three pillars that make it great: ease of use, hierarchy and flexibility.
Ease of use
It’s clear to see why the designers would give players drumsticks for playing with drum-type instruments, but what’s really smart is also making drumsticks the tools to manipulate the interface. Humans are evolutionarily adept at manipulating tools – in fact, studies have shown that with enough practice, we subconsciously and proprioceptively view tools as an extension of ourselves.
In the case of Electronauts, the extra reach provided by the chopsticks allows the interface to be comfortably large to overcome problems with precision, making the entire interface easier to use with less chance of errors.
We can see this clearly in the operation of the buttons in the game. While the intuitive idea would be to have buttons that are pressed when touched, Electronauts does things differently for the sake of precision. Instead of just touching a button to activate it, you actually insert your wand into the button and then squeeze the trigger.
This is a very smart solution to the problem of missing physical returns in VR. Real-life buttons are deeply designed around physical feedback, and that feedback helps you press them reliably. Because there is nothing to push back on the wand in VR, it’s harder to confidently target and activate a physically simulated button.
Asking the user to cross the button with their wand and then pull the trigger to confirm their selection greatly increases the accuracy of in-game buttons compared to a physical button simulation.
Hierarchy is an essential part of any interface. This is the way you organize the functions of the interface so that it is logical, easy to remember, and easy to access.
Electronauts has a very smart hierarchy where all the functions of the game are contained in tools, and all tools are represented as cubes. To access the functions of any tool, all you need to do is place a cube in a base.
You can think of each cube as its own mini-app, just like the way smartphone apps are displayed as icons on a screen, each containing specific functionality. This makes it very easy to remember where to access certain functions without the interface having to overwhelm the user with displaying all the functions at once.
With a limit of three active cubes at any time, Electronauts does a good job of having a clearly organized hierarchy that is not too deep. Too deep a hierarchy, like having folders inside folders inside folders, can mean too much time spent digging to get to the function you’re looking for, even if it means everything is clearly organized.