Design ideas for that moment of return to the real world.

When developing for virtual reality, designers focus on providing an immersive experience while the user is on the application. However, to provide a great overall user experience, designers should also pay attention to the moment of exit — the part when the experience ends and the users take off their headsets.

Designing exits to VR experiences can be leveraged to achieve desirable effects. For example, exits could be designed to minimize shocks by easing the return to the real world.

Knibbe and colleagues conducted a user research to explore the design space for VR exits. Their thematic analysis revealed four aspects that could inspire better design:

Spatial disorientation

When using VR, users tend to lose track of their position and orientation in the real world. This is especially prominent when movements in the virtual world are minified — that is, bigger movements in the real world translates to smaller movements in the virtual world. Users describe the feeling to be surprising, unsettling, exciting, and weird. Some of the study participants explained:

“It was a bit disorienting because I had expected to be facing the other way.”

“I thought I was just maybe (at a) 0–20 degree angle but I was like at 45.”

Losing control

Abrupt endings, say fading to black or to an empty room, may evoke feelings of disappointment. Study participants have described the experience to be similar to scenes in movies like The Matrix and Avatar where the protagonists get ‘unplugged’ from their fantastical experience. One participant finds this invasive and mentioned:

“I was in a dream that I knew I had to wake up.”

Sensory adaptation

Removing the headset results in drastic changes to visual stimuli. There are differences in the lighting and texture between the virtual and real environments which can cause unpleasant sensations during VR exit. One participant said:

“I think I had to adapt because the contrast (in reality) is much higher.”

Social environment

Using VR in front of other people can be embarrassing for some users. For example, a study participant recalls a prior VR experience where he could hear laughter around him while using the application. This made him feel self-conscious.

Based on user research, researchers suggest the following four ideas to ease the transition to the real world.

Keep endings open

Abruptly closing the application might be forcing the user out of a VR scenario. Instead of fading to black, consider keeping the scene and let the users decide for themselves when they are ready to take off the head-mounted display. This gives them more control over the exit.

Abrupt versus open ending

Apply soft transitions

When the VR experience ends, consider slowly fading out the virtual world while gradually revealing the real world. That is, the head-mounted display becomes see-through in the end. This gradual shift could help users adjust with the lighting and texture differences between the virtual and real environments.

Transitioning to see-through HMD

Align objects to the room

Consider repositioning virtual objects of interest against the physical walls of the room to suggest the actual dimensions of the room. This could help users adapt to the scale of the real environment. Also, this could help users identify their position and orientation within the room.

Floating virtual boxes realigned to the real room environment

Display an ability dashboard

Having an ability dashboard can tell the users that their skill inside the virtual world will now be unavailable in the real world.

Ability dashboard shows on and off status of a point-and-drag skill

User research reveals some interesting opportunities for better design of VR exits. Emerging themes include addressing issues in spatial disorientation, control, sensory adaptation, and the social environment.

As a starting point, researchers suggest a few ideas to create smoother transitions between the virtual environment and the real world. The moment of exiting VR might be short, but it’s a significant part of the overall user experience.