Prototype Twice...Cut Once

BY Matthew Lovelady

When we engineer an experience that blends both physical and digital elements, it is crucial that our team understands the scale, limitations, and properties of the materials, hardware, and software that we are using. Without this understanding, you can waste time and resources producing an experience that doesn’t match your original vision.

This lesson is one that I learned all too well several years ago from a humble wooden floor lamp.

It was a casual fall afternoon as I browsed a small craft fair. On this particular day, I passed by the furniture, jewelry, knickknacks, and wall decorations, until I came across a simple wooden floor lamp. The lamp was just the right height for placing next to a reading chair, and my mind instantly created images of enjoying a captivating book into the late evening–at which time, I would need to reach over and switch on a beautiful hand-crafted lamp.

Now, here’s the thing you need to know about me… Although I certainly admire and appreciate fine craftsmanship, I also have a slightly misguided belief that I can build practically anything on my own.

So the next day, I was on my way to Lowe’s with a crude sketch and hopeful optimism. I gathered all the necessary materials (plus a package of gummy worms I found next to the cash register; I don’t know why they are there, but it stands to reason that no man can build objects with his bare hands without the sweet sugary rush of gelatinous, candy invertebrates). Soon enough, I was home and ready to start my project.

Fast forward through the blood, sweat, and embarrassing amount of tears…and Voilà! My replica of the reading lamp I had seen was now complete. Yet, something seemed not quite right.

The lamp that was supposed to fit next to my comfy reading chair was taller than me in a standing position. There would be no casually turning on this light while I was enjoying a good book. I would literally have to get up and stand in the chair itself to reach the switch on top of what now appeared to be a reclaimed front porch column.

My construction was fine, but I had failed to plan the accurate (or useful) proportion for the height of the lamp. Before I cut and assembled all the pieces, I should have tested the height of a single board to see how the chair and height related to each other.

In other words, I should have created a prototype.

A prototype is a first, preliminary, or working model from which you can learn and improve upon prior to final production. As a creative studio that produces experiences ranging from corporate meetings to interactive exhibits, we thrive on prototypes to ensure our clients receive the best possible version of the product or experience we are delivering.

People generally think about prototypes as physical models made out of paper, foam board, or now objects that are 3D printed. When we are producing a new trade show exhibit or event space, our office can quickly become an organized chaos of arts and crafts projects as we assemble models such as the one seen below. This model helps us understand the scale of various elements and how people will perceive those elements as they move through the space.

vr_prototype_01

Prototypes can also be digital models for testing functionality and usability. If you’ve been following this blog series, you know that we’ve been exploring a new virtual reality project. (If you haven’t been following our series, start here). The challenge to (and need for) creating a prototype for VR is that we have to understand how the modeling, camera angle, tracking software, and room scaling work together.

For our initial prototype, we decided to recreate our Lab as it appears today. By recreating our existing space, we knew the specific measurements, and we had a real-world comparison. In other words, we used our physical Lab space as model for evaluating our new “virtual” Lab.

vr_prototype_02

The next step was to prototype the camera control to understand how the VR user would perceive our new virtual Lab.

vr_prototype_03

As you can see from the image above, the initial testing revealed a slight issue with the camera control. (Although this angle may be your camera view after one too many happy hours on Broadway during CMA Music Festival, this is not how we want our VR experience to begin.)

With the camera angle adjusted, it was time to bring in our alpha users to test the room scaling. In a perfect world, the 3D modeling and room scaling work together to convey the physical boundaries of your space to VR users. Our test subjects quickly discovered those physical boundaries.

vr_prototype_04-2

After several adjustments to the room scaling settings. I am now pleased to report that we haven’t seen any VR-induced stubbed toes or jammed fingers in days.

Whether you are building a physical object (like a wooden lamp for a giant’s living room) or moving into a new technology platform (like VR), creating prototypes is essential to understanding, planning, and producing the ultimate deliverable. Without a true understanding of the tools, scale, and user experience, things can get a little… out of hand.

Equipped with the lessons we learned during our VR prototyping, the Anode team is ready to move forward into final production. Keep following this series to see how our first VR experience will become a reality.

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