To understand how people will interact with digital technologies in the future, it’s useful to think in terms of “mixed reality,” argues HP Labs researcher and Chief Experience Architect Alex Thayer.
“We’ll certainly have access to virtual reality, where people will work within an entirely digital environment, and also new augmented reality technologies, which layer digital information over what you’re seeing in the real world,” Thayer explains. “But at HP Labs, we don’t expect one to be more important than the other – instead we use a lens that includes them both, which we call “mixed reality.”
The key to predicting the shape of this mixed reality future is to focus on what people will want technology to do for them, adds Thayer’s HP Labs colleague, Ian Robinson.
“Rather than placing bets on any specific technology in the abstract, you need to start by asking: What is it you are trying to achieve through your interaction with a computer?” he says. “And then you ask: What is the most intuitive way to interact with that computer to make that happen?”
This perspective informs the research program underway at HP’s Immersive Experiences Lab, where both Robinson and Thayer are based, to envision how users’ experience of computing will change over the next five to twenty years.
New tools for interaction – and new expectations
If user experience research used to focus on the design and implementation of interfaces and tools like 2D graphics, video displays, keyboards, joysticks, and mice, the advent of relatively cheap and more user-friendly immersive technologies, from VR headsets to devices that let you ‘touch’ and manipulate virtual objects, has broadened the range of potential solutions available to fit any particular need.
It’s also raised user expectations. “People want the tools they use to navigate their mixed reality experiences to replicate the feel and ease of use they experience in interacting with the analog world,” notes Thayer.
“That’s really difficult, technically,” he acknowledges, “but the reason we have to do it is because people want to use the same tools in the analog and virtual worlds, to have a seamless workflow across them both.”
These new tools can’t yet do everything people want, HP Labs research is showing. A virtual reality experience remains very hard to share, for example, so its potential as a tool for collaboration remains underutilized.
But Immersive Experiences Lab investigations are also helping understand how the mixed reality experience can be advanced to meet needs like these.
“We’re working, for example, with creative professionals like architects, engineers, and animators to first understand what they need to get done and then develop concepts for new user interfaces that allow them to do their work more efficiently,” says Thayer.
These research partners are then invited to interact with simplified instantiations of the ideas and their feedback is used to further refine the concept. That in turn feeds into HP’s business planning processes, enabling the company to anticipate specific kinds of customer needs and create technologies that are best able to help customers be more effective in doing their work.
“This isn’t so much about creating a specific new product,” notes Robinson. “The value here is in prototyping and then testing ideas as quickly as possible to see whether they are addressing the needs we’ve identified.”
This effort is one aspect of a broad investigation underway at HP Labs into the future of work.
Even with laptops and other mobile devices available to us today, we still work at desks, Thayer observes. “And that’s likely to remain true, even with VR,” he says. “VR might let us all physically walk through a shared virtual space, but that’s not feasible if people are gathered in one office to do it, just from a space-management perspective.”
If we’re unlikely to work by wandering around virtual worlds anytime soon, that doesn’t mean we are destined to stick with current computer interfaces like flat screen displays.
“I’m pretty sure most of us will end up using some kind of VR or AR at our desks,” suggests Thayer, “which raises the question of what that experience should look like. The work we do at HP Labs to interact with, and therefore understand, the future needs of our users is helping us define that for the industry.”