Designing Physical Products for a Virtual World

Speck Design
6 min readMay 8, 2023

“The people who go into the Metaverse, basically-who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages.” ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

In 1992, American sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in his book Snow Crash. It depicts a dystopian future where only rich people have the means to escape into a highly immersive virtual reality. The actual future of virtual realities is yet to be written, and much remains unknown. But, as human-centered product designers, what we do know is ― creating a kind and equitable metaverse (rather than a dystopian one) is as much in the hands of those of us who make physical products as digital ones.‍

The State of Virtual Reality in 2023

The use of digital and extended reality platforms has skyrocketed over the past few years, largely thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns. Coupled with some of the latest technological advances, it now appears humanity is heading toward a real-world/metaverse hybrid. Soon, most of the objects industrial designers create will also require a digital counterpart or” digital twin” to be used or viewed online. The two products are not siloed from each other, nor are they the same, meaning two user journeys, two user experiences, and maybe even two personas to design for since real-world personas and digital ones can differ. And even as designers of physical products, not virtual ones, our jurisdiction will likely extend into both.

Our Roles as Industrial Designers in Virtual Reality Design

In the physical context, the industrial designer’s role is clear: Combine art and engineering to make the tangible products people use every day. The lines are a bit more blurred in an emerging world where physical and digital realities are mixed. The idea that there will be people or companies that only design for tangible products is already antiquated. The skill set of an industrial design — especially a user-centric one — will likely prove the best bridge between the realities. This is because we are already adept at creating seamless interactions in a three-dimensional space.

Our Roles as Human-Centered Designers in Virtual Reality Design

Our congruence for the role goes beyond parts and three-dimensional space. At its core, human-centered product design is about the users and their emotional responses to the objects we create. Our skills designing for those emotions transcend physical and digital space. And the design thinking around it is something we’ve seen and used before. This is no easy task since the unintended (therefore unpredictable) consequences of dividing the world in two loom large. But we can certainly start ideating solutions for the problems we already see.

Designing Virtual Spaces to Reduce Fear

Looking at the metaverse as not only an extension of reality but as an evolution of the internet makes it clear there are many things we can do better this time around. Safety and security 100% need to be built into the virtual platforms and the physical infrastructures supporting them. The monumental problems around oversight, privacy, and governance that need to be addressed for the metaverse to thrive are out of our scope.

However, as we design for users adapting to somewhat new physical technologies and virtual ones, we can reduce stress and fear and soften the transition with objects and experiences that are strongly reminiscent of those they already understand. Skeuomorphism, as it is called, is designing familiar interactions into things to reduce anxiety and increase acceptance, like how your phone camera makes an analog camera shutter sound. As physical product designers, we are adept at optimizing these everyday artifacts; the action on buttons, the feel of a bezel, and the feedback on a click. It is our life’s work to perfect these details on the products we design in the real world. It will also be ours to import them, at the very least, advocate for them in the virtual one as well.

Designing Virtual Spaces to Decrease Isolation

Increased Isolation is one of the most significant issues on the horizon as our world gets more digital and more customized. The repercussions of social media are a harbinger of how disconnected virtual connections can make us. Whether it is heads-up displays laid over the real world or customized for only you to experience, virtual reality is a major obstacle to making real-world connections. The result could very well be people living in separate realities, standing only a few feet apart. This parsing of realities is not only isolating; it could add fuel to the factual relativism that already divides.

Humans, as a species, rely on connections to others to survive and thrive. So those of us who design parts of the virtual experience must design it with shared experiences in mind. These create bonds between people and, in doing so, help them form deeper relationships. Many of our current-day social behaviors evolved around connectivity: resource allocation, fairness, trust, equity, and justice. If we hope to have a metaverse with more of those things, we product designers must consciously make an effort to design shared moments and common goals into every user touch point of the virtual reality experience.

Designing Virtual Spaces to Avoid Over Stimulation

For all of its perks, augmented reality has the potential to be highly invasive. We already see how distracting smartphones can be, successfully outcompeting important areas, like family and friends, for our attention. Virtual reality marketing is quickly evolving, with companies like Snapchat announcing plans to offer virtual reality shopping and concert experiences. We suspect it won’t be long before wearing AR glasses becomes as commonplace as carrying a cell phone. These types of in-your-face displays promise to be much more powerful and congested than any cellphone view. Advertising, responsive displays, and social media feeds will all be directly in the way of the user’s vision at all times. Keiichi Matsuda made an excellent video of what he calls “hyper-reality.” Although painful to watch, it is a powerful cautionary tale that every designer, marketer, and programmer should watch.

As industrial designers, we probably won’t have much influence on what, when, and how much is shown via the AR hardware if we design to client specs. But there are definitely opportunities to insert design nudges towards simplicity and calm. One way to address the threat of extreme over-stimulation is by reworking our design questions. For instance, instead of probing how we can get people deeper into a virtual world, perhaps it is better to think around how best to entice them back out.

The Tale of Two Realities is Ours to Tell

One of the most exciting parts of designing for virtual reality innovations is the blue sky thinking it allows industrial designers to engage in, untethered from our typical real-world constraints. The same can be said for the design thinking approach we must take to make a reality schism a good thing. Ultimately, for the human-centered designer finding a way to design the changes we want to see in the real world into the virtual one will be our biggest challenge but also our greatest success.

Speck DesignProduct Design Agency
San Jose, CA

Speck Design is a San Jose-based product design consultancy that has been creating memorable experiences through human-centered industrial design and engineering for the last 25 years. We work with companies large and small to bring to life consumer products, automotive products, and medical devices. We specialize in UX design, user research, and design for manufacturing to help bring seamless solutions that bring products to market. If you have a VR, AR, XR, or MR product idea, we would love to help you bring it to life; reach out to discuss.

Want to see Speck Design’s work on VR technologies? Read our case study below.

Originally published at https://www.speckdesign.com.

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Speck Design

We improve human connections and experiences through innovative product design.