A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original. [Wikipedia]
In 2012 Tom Hobbs made a plea for user interface (UI) designers to “stop aping real-life bookshelves and suede calendars like Apple does, and go for a new philosophy”.
Of course one year later Apple introduced iOS 7 which largely heralded the the death knell for skeuomorphism in design. And the world has gone mostly flat (in design terms) ever since. Though of course there are many skeuomorphic elements retained in flat UIs, e.g., the liberal use of shadows in Google’s Material Design guidelines to create a sense of depth and layered context within apps. But not so much faux stitched leather, thank goodness.
Skeuomorphism isn’t all bad — it has a role to play in easing users into an unfamiliar environment. Buttons, trash cans, and floppy disk icons provide recognizable visual cues for how things work and create a sense of comfort for those migrating to a digital interface from the traditional physical counterpart. Which lessens the requirement for tutorials and how-to’s.
But on the other hand skeuomorphism can restrain users with mechanical, inefficient ways of presenting information. And this is what we need to bear in mind as we figure out the affordances of a whole new canvas for digital expression, in Virtual Reality.
Right now, in these early days for the consumer adoption of headsets, the vast majority of start-ups are swinging for the low hanging fruit of obvious VR. As they probably well should. By ‘obvious’ I mean anything in the real world that can benefit from being experienced digitally in all it’s natural three dimensional glory; war zones for PTSD treatment, offices for construction, machines for engineering, body parts for medical training, scary situations for phobia treatment, historic buildings for stage rehearsal, and on, and on and on.
All these are being and will be done. And we’ll build user interfaces that are a natural match for these digital realities with skeuomorphic dials, switches and buttons. As we’ve done with video games for years.
But what about the fruit at the top of the tree? What does that look like? I won’t pretend I have a vision for where VR takes us after the obvious stuff has been built, after the literal translations of real world ‘stuff’ have been done. But I’ve seen a few examples that can point the way.
Most of the VR worlds I’ve seen are exactly that — worlds. With a ground and sky, or floor and ceiling. And gravity. But when we ran the MissionV virtual worlds programme in 20 schools during 2011 what we regularly saw was the kids flying their avatars way up into the sky where they built amazing structures that weren’t limited by the laws of physics or rules of architecture. VR designers should take a leaf out of the kids’ books and free themselves from the vestiges of real world restrictions.
Albert Hwang talks about a VR app that gave him an intuition for higher order dimensional thinking, by taking a 4D hypercube and transposing it to 3D in a Virtual Reality.
The key thing to understand is that this new level of intuition for the characteristics of a hypercube would not have been possible in a traditional 3D (stereoscopic) environment. It was the full immersion of Virtual Reality that “unlocked a totally new understanding for me”.
And that for me points to the way in which VR can reach its true potential — by figuring out the things you can do in VR that simply can’t be achieved in any other medium, or by any other means.
I don’t believe we’ll get there by skeuomorphing Virtual Reality, but rather by morphing reality.