Bending time in VR/AR UX design

Summary: In immersive experiences, time can feel altered or distorted. By being aware of this design variable, you can use time design to make experiences more engaging and safer.

How can you create a sense of time in VR?

Time has a ‘mind of its own’ in Virtual Reality (VR) experiences. Users often report feeling like five minutes have passed when only 20-50 minutes have passed. In our VR user testing labs, we observe it often; others have noticed it, too…

See: Time Perception Research & Manipulating Time Dilation Effects in VR

Time can play a unique role in immersion, a VR phenomenon where you feel more deeply immersed in the flow of the narrative or virtual environment. In VR, the more immersion you offer the user, the better. In Augmented Reality (AR) you want less immersion due to the real-world dangers and constraints: traffic, others, walls, trees etc.

The key questions are:

How absorbed can users safely become, in your experience?

How much “loosing track of time” do you afford with your design?

Why this matters: VR/AR activates spatial cognition by placing user’s brains in spaces. Time dilation means something felt short or fast. Time should be considered a design opportunity. You can turn it up or down in terms of “time dilation” or Time Design.

Understanding time in spatial computing

The experience of time appears to be a uniquely human capability. It’s helpful to appreciate that Einstein pointed out that time and space are unified. Notice how time dilation happens in space- for our purposes, a virtual environment where all this stuff can be manipulated, including gravity. Einstein theorized (now proven correct) that the amount of human perceived time was linked to the amount of gravity in an environment. He called this ‘gravitational time dilation’. In short:

Time speeds up or slows down based on the amount of gravity and where you’re perceiving it from. The more gravity the slower time passes. With less gravity, time whizzes by.

Applying this notion to VR design opens up a realm of creative possibilities, allowing designers and developers to craft experiences where time appears to either slow down or speed up, influencing the user’s perception and engagement within the virtual setting.

In VR, time speeding up is fine. Fast time indicates less gravity– imagine a balloon you grab that takes you for a float above a scene. As you float, can you keep track of time? What about if you saw pleasant things that made you feel “floaty” and comfortable…?

VR users grabs ballons

In contrast, with AR, we need to respect the time-burst nature of a bound-by-real physical space experience. Users attention and space are limited, e.g., a wall, a couch, or a social situation. With less space, our AR experiences need shorter time dilation episodes. Why? Users are keeping an eye out for real-world events. In this safety scenario, an AR-wearing user walks before a bus.

a girl wearing AR goggles with bus approaching

This scenario is not that far-fetched. A Purdue University study showed an increase in accidents 100 meters from “poke stops”. Within the first five months of the Pokemon Go roll-out, 256 died playing Pokemon AR (source: Impaakt 2016)—plus 150,000 traffic accidents. Since then, 22 more people have died. In August 2022, two Argentinian people died while driving and playing Pokemon.

In AR, look out for attention-absorbing events and interruptions where users lose focus. Ensure they can “get out” of time-distorting interactions or content quickly and fluidly to protect their physical or social safety.

What effects the bending of time in VR/AR UX design

How much ‘slow time’ or ‘fast time’ you give a user will depend on the narrative and, for example, any tension or immersion you create. A user’s tasks/goals and their expected time with a task will also factor in. Due to poor UX design or VR/AR, we regularly see time dilation occurring on the wrong segment or task. Sadly, a user struggling to figure something out can last 10-15 minutes. A wasted use of time dilation.

Ethical Considerations:

While the concept of manipulating time within VR holds immense potential, designers must remain mindful of the ethical implications and user experience considerations. Implementing time dilation should prioritize user comfort and engagement, ensuring that the altered perception of time does not disrupt the overall immersive experience or lead to disorientation or discomfort.

If you want to bend a user’s sense of time and boost immersion and presence (the feeling of being there), use storytelling techniques for VR/AR. Since immersive experiences can rely on narrative techniques (think of story as a design element), borrowing from cinema for time design makes sense.

Time Design techniques from cinema

Consider using these time-based techniques used in movie-making for your VR/AR experience:

  • An Establishing Shot is a distant view of a location, typically aerial, setting the time and place for the audience. It provides context for the following scene. The movie Back to the Future is an excellent example of this: it starts in the 80s, before the story set in the future.
  • Flashback disrupts the narrative order, revealing past events, often predating the film’s start, providing background for the present actions. Think of how you present these so they are not too jarring. Perhaps a user can look into a special device to see this. A crystal ball with past and future narratives?
  • Flash-Forward breaks the storyline to depict future events, sometimes transitioning from the past to the present. Think of a magic mirror that lets you see ahead in the forest.
  • Jump Cut abruptly shifts a continuous shot, indicating a passage of time between scenes, often used for artistic discontinuity.
  • Dissolve is a film edit smoothly transitioning between scenes, blending or overlaying one image with another. It often implies the passage of time.
  • Bridging Shot bridges a spatial or temporal gap, as many video games use a map to indicate your character’s movement.
  • Time Lapse captures slow processes at an accelerated pace, as in David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series, where the lifecycle of a cactus is shown in seconds, for example.
Key Insights:

Manipulating time as a design element in VR/AR can make for better UX. Using the concept of ‘time dilation’ can help you navigate how much depth of attention you want users to give.

In AR, context dictates your time dilation opportunity: How fast do users need to ‘come back to now’ for safety?

In VR, time dilation can only help create a heightened sense of anticipation, suspense, or a deeper connection to the virtual environment.

Gravitational time dilation or ‘Time Design’ represents a compelling tool for enhancing the immersive potential of VR design. By delicately manipulating time within the virtual realm, designers can create captivating narratives, dynamic gameplay, and immersive educational experiences that resonate deeply with users. Upholding a user-centric approach and mindful application of this concept will undoubtedly pave the way for a more engaging and enriching virtual and augmented reality set of use cases.

2 thoughts on “Bending time in VR/AR UX design

    1. By starting with an ethical design approach, emphasising inclusion (Inclusive Design) and by extensive usability testing with diverse users.

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