Virtual Reality
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VR Design Principles


Reshaping the traditional creative process, the integration of VR encourages unprecedented immersion, presence and performance.

We have built our framework for crafting holistic virtual reality experiences around these three pillars.

The Immersion, Presence and Performance (IPP) model is a theoretical framework that explains how users interact with virtual environments and how different aspects of the virtual environment influences the user's experience. This model addresses the critical elements required to create an engaging and user-focused VR experience. Let’s break down this framework and explore how it provides the foundation of the experiences we create.

Samuel Page & Andrew Measham


Creating an environment in which users feel absorbed, connected and completely engaged allows for immersion. The aim is to transport users into an experience where the digital becomes tangible: the distinction between physical and digital fades away.

1/3 Surroundings

In a fully-immersive environment, frames or screens no longer limit your outlook. In this realm, you're not merely observing, but rather an integral part of the landscape. You can move and interact, and the world responds in turn. Sights and sounds envelop you, allowing for a visceral experience where your senses are fully engaged.

Imagine donning a VR headset to find yourself standing in the centre of the remains of an ancient marketplace within a castle…

Historic Environment Scotland by Seymourpowell

This was an experience we created for Historic Environment Scotland. Utilising scanned data of St Andrews Castle, we created a VR experience which introduces visitors to a scaled model of the castle. This allows them to interact with the model before being transported to a 360-degree environment, where users can experience the castle from every angle.

The devil’s in the detail…

When immersing users into a virtual environment, you must focus on the quality of the fine details in the experience. Users will pick up on these features, helping them to isolate from the physical world.

2/3 Interactivity

Allowing users to manipulate objects, trigger events and make meaningful choices throughout the experience can help transport them from their physical surroundings to a realm where they are not just observers, but active participants. Interactions can be crafted to seamlessly bridge the gap between the virtual and real world, with actions which feel instinctive and intuitive. Users will become more engaged and connected, creating a deeper sense of immersion.

When working on a VR experience, there are different ways you can realise interactivity:

Physical Interaction

Create environments where users can pick up, manipulate, and interact with objects as they would in the physical world. This could include opening doors, picking up things, or stacking items.

Environmental Control

Enable users to influence the environment around them. For instance, changing the weather, adjusting lighting or altering the time of day.

Drawing and Sculpting

Allow users to draw and create splines, curves or surfaces using intuitive hand gestures. This allows them to iterate on concepts or highlight critical points for discussion.

3/3 Multi-Sensory

By engaging multiple senses, designers can create profoundly immersive experiences which resonate on a visceral level.

Auditory inputs
Haptic input


Presence is not just about making users feel engaged within the virtual world, it's about creating an emotional sensation that they are genuinely there. It goes beyond the physical features of immersion and delves into the psychological aspect of being emotionally involved in the experience.

1/2 Social Interactions

How do we create an environment which promotes interaction and ensures users feel connected?

A key element in building presence is fostering social interactions within VR. When users can interact with avatars or other users, it triggers a sense of social presence – the feeling of being in the company of others, even when miles apart. VR interactions with avatars can lead to genuine connections and emotional responses, mirroring real-life social dynamics.

2/2 Avatar Appearance

An avatar's appearance and behaviour can make or break our feeling of connection whilst in VR. When interacting with avatars, they must be perceived as an extension of us.

If the avatar is too robotic in appearance and movement, users may struggle to connect. On the other hand, if an avatar is designed to be as realistic as possible, it can provoke an eerie or unsettling feeling: the ‘un-canny valley’.

It's essential to strike a balance and find familiarity with humans from the avatar’s facial expressions, gestures and hands. Ensure the avatar has good spatial awareness, that they face users and maintain eye contact during interactions.

Users can now communicate using text, voice, body language and gestures in VR. Creating an avatar that can wave, laugh, nod and now even mimic real facial expressions (thanks to advanced headsets!) allows communication to be a two-way street.

Oculus Avatars by Meta


Performance in virtual reality (VR) enables users to seamlessly interact with the virtual environment, complete tasks and achieve goals. It encompasses the mechanics that empower users to take actions, make decisions and easily navigate the virtual world. Like in real-life learning, the more time users spend working on a task, the more proficient and skilled they become.

1/3 Adaptation & Learning

HoLet’s not forget that VR will be a new experience for many, meaning that there will be a learning curve. VR hardware, navigation controls and the specific rules of each virtual environment are all things users must familiarise themselves with in order to adopt a state of autonomy.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane…

Can you remember the days when we had to become accustomed to interacting with 2D user interfaces and interactions, such as using a mouse, scrolling or clicking? As we've gradually progressed with the technology, it's become second nature to us all. A parallel can be drawn with our current relationship with VR. As users spend more time in VR, actions will become more intuitive. Users will become more proficient at engaging with objects, other users and environments.

So, how can we ease a user's first interaction inside a VR experience?

Over the years, we have refined and tested various mechanisms for helping users get to grips with VR in those early stages.

Tutorials and controls

Technology is ever-evolving, meaning the input method for each piece of VR hardware is constantly changing. However, ensuring users know how to control the virtual environment is essential to a quick start up process. Remember: unless MR is used, users won't be able to look down at their hands. Creating digital controllers in the virtual space with instructions on each controller can be a great way of reminding users what each button does in a particular application. Try to stick to digital norms to make controls simple to pick up.

Welcome Lobby

The welcome lobby is where users initially spawn and is a space to get to grips with the basics. Provide instructional information for the user and have the option to disable certain features (like teleportation) to keep the process simple.

Troubleshooting (FAQ)

Anticipate that users may have questions or need support early on. Troubleshooting guides and FAQs are a good way of addressing common issues. Users need to be able to experience scenes independently, so this guide is helpful if human assistance isn’t on hand.

2/3 Task Performance

Acknowledge that many people have little-to-no experience with virtual reality and therefore rely on past experiences (physical and digital) to drive their behaviours and expectations in the virtual realm.

Building on existing mental models

Over many years of repeated use and iteration, we have refined digital standards that offer familiar interaction patterns which users readily recognise. Think of the way we effortlessly navigate shifting tabs, open drop-down menus and move through navigation systems. We can help create experiences which feel more intuitive through recognisable symbols and UI elements.

Take cues from the analogue version of whatever it is you’re designing. If the interaction model and selected design elements for the UI have some parallel to the real world, the interface will feel familiar, making it much more likely that people will understand how to use it right away.

Sometimes it’s best to stick to conventional digital interactions

With so many new interactions available to users in VR, it can be hard to know when it’s the right time to use a conventional interaction versus a new, VR-enabled, interaction. Take drawing a circle, for example. When we began designing our own digital sketching and development tool for VR (Reality Works) we experimented with countless ways to draw a circle. From using a physical compass (a stick with the controller on the end) to a routed-out circle, within a piece of wood, as a physical drawing tool, we eventually found that the best way to create a perfect circle was to use a digital circle tool chosen from a menu. We could then combine this with the more typical VR interaction of picking the circle up and placing it exactly where desired in the 3D space.

Building Reality Works at Seymourpowell

This is an example of a successful union between conventional digital interactions and new VR-enabled ones. While we believe it’s essential to ground the VR design experience in reality, it’s not about being 100% real or forcing every interaction to be human. Working out where this balance lies is essential in efficient task performance.

3/3 Navigation & Exploration

One of the most important aspects of a virtual experience ishow efficiently users navigate and interact with the environment.

Understanding the goals and needs

Before developing an experience, it is crucial to consider the journey you want to take the user on. VR has limitless possibilities and it’s very easy to jump into building an environment and get carried away with the details, losing sight of the fundamental user needs and business goals.

Building an efficient menu

When designing navigation, focus on how intuitive and consistent the navigation is for users. Crafting controls and interactions which mirror real-world actions ensures that users can naturally engage with the menu.

Providing guidance when exploring

Users should have a clear understanding of their position within the virtual space. Implement way-finding elements like signs, arrows or landmarks to guide users through complex environments. Provide maps or mini maps to give the user a perspective on where they are from a bird's-eye view.

So, whether you're embarking on a quest to explore new frontiers or honing your skills in the virtual realm, use the IPP Model as your guiding principle. This will ensure that your VR creations are truly immersive, emotionally resonant and performance driven.

Samuel Page and Andrew Measham are Interaction Designers at Seymourpowell