Participatory Design of Community Spaces using Virtual Reality | Singapore Government Developer Portal
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At the STACK 2020 Conference, Senior Systems Analyst of the Housing Development Board (HDB) Mr. Lee Chen Tong shared how the use of Virtual Reality (VR) had enhanced residents’ experience and satisfaction in co-designing community spaces with HDB. He explained that during the VR co-design workshops, the ability for residents’ intent to be directly and readily translated into 3D site plans in VR allowed for better alignment to be achieved between residents’ expectations and that of the actual designs. This not only resulted in designs that better meet residents’ needs, but also created a more fulfilling and enjoyable experience for the residents.

The Participatory Design Process

Sensing, Ideation, Validation and Implementation are the key stages in HDB’s approach to the Participatory Design of Community Spaces. During the Ideation stage, HDB would host focus group discussions with residents to solicit fresh ideas on how to redesign their day-to-day community spaces. These discussions were typically facilitated using sketches on site plans, cardboard cutouts, and reference pictures – through which ideas and design concepts shared by residents would be captured. All the ideas from respective focus groups were then passed on to design consultants who would spend months working on design proposals based on the varied ideas. Eventually when the designs were ready, the Validation stage begins with another resident engagement session where they would vote for their favourite design to be implemented.

Experiential and Operational Challenges

Whilst participatory design allowed better engagement with residents, the process faces key challenges in the areas of user experience and operations. In terms of user experience, some residents were unable to visualise the outcomes of the ideas discussed through the limited visual aids, nor could they draw well enough to properly convey their ideas. It was also difficult to get a good sense of scale and space through site plans and pictures alone, making it tough for residents to understand the space constraints to work with. Operationally speaking, because the ideas from residents were captured in such intangible forms, design consultants were also needed to interpret and propose suitable designs. This not only took a considerable amount of time (2-3 months), it also risked not properly capturing what the residents wanted.

Experiential and Operational Improvements

To tackle these challenges, HDB implemented a VR application that effectively condensed the Ideation and Validation stages into a single engagement session with the residents. The VR application worked by providing a library of 3D furniture models that facilitators could drag and drop into the VR scenes. Since the furniture models and scenes were drawn to scale, the residents were provided with a clear idea of what to expect in the proposed designs. Site constraints could also be better explained to residents and HDB could gain immediate consensus and validation on the same day. This shortened the engagement process by 2-3 months and increased residents’ satisfaction to more than 90%.

This journey was an enriching one for HDB, and they took away several learning points on public engagements with VR that could be broadly classified into 3 categories:

  1. Application – considerations in VR application design;
  2. People – ways to better handle users; and
  3. Operations – deployment considerations for smooth delivery.

Application: Designing for Better User Experience

To prevent motion sickness, a healthy frame rate needs to be maintained – around the range of 60-90 frames per second to create a smooth simulation experience. Camera smoothing for projecting the VR user’s view on secondary screens is also vital in ensuring a good viewing experience for audiences waiting in line. To ease the general public’s unfamiliarity with VR, the application should also be designed with simplified user controls, and features to allow for self-help. In particular, ensuring that the VR experience could be handled by both the users and their guide is important to create a smooth first taste of VR for an uncertain populace.

People: Ways to Better Handle First Time VR Users

As VR technology is still considered relatively niche, most people would not have had the chance to experience VR before. For such first-time users, the VR experience can be overwhelming and disorientating. It is hence important to recognize this reality, and provide for adequate human guidance to ensure that the experience would be an enjoyable one for the users. Some measures that HDB has found useful through their experiences are:

  1. Walking through the VR controls with users before putting on the headsets for them;
  2. Making sure that human guides are deployed and that they can see what the user is experiencing in VR; and
  3. Broadcasting the experience to a wider audience to keep those waiting in line entertained and prepared for their turn.

Operations: Deployment Considerations for Smooth Delivery

Unlike typical software experiences, a large part of the success in a VR engagement depends on operational considerations. From their experience, HDB found the following considerations to be particularly useful to ensure smooth delivery of a VR experience:

  1. Choosing well-shielded locations to avoid infrared interferences from sunlight or AV equipment;
  2. Choosing the right VR delivery platform – tethered VR solution for robust interactions and mobile VR solutions for better reach;
  3. Explaining to users about the VR controls while they are in the queue to save time; and
  4. Helping users navigate the VR scene if they prefer less interaction or struggle with the VR controls.

Last updated 01 June 2022

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