Speculative Design and Prototyping for AR/VR

Pranshu Chaudhary talks about his experiences in Speculative Design and designing AR/VR experiences.

Speculative Design and Prototyping for AR/VR
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Pranshu Chaudhary is the Design Lead at Praja.buzz and a New Media Design Graduate from NID.

Q: How did you get started in design? What was the journey like?

I studied mechanical engineering during my B. Tech where I was quite keen on studying robotics. Engineering taught me how to make things. But to know the context of why am I making something in a particular manner, I decided to take apply to the National Institute of Design for their New Media Design Program. The course focuses on technology and its philosophical aspects while also finding applications for it. I then went on to join Value Labs, a Hyderabad-based IT services company where I was part of the design team UX consultancy group as an interaction designer.

Q: What is speculative and critical design according to you?

For me, speculative or critical design is working in the ‘unknown’ spaces. Spaces where you do not find any precedent, but at the same time, you are trying to predict all that can happen in the future by looking at where we are in the present today and studying the trends that have come up. There are multi-layered approaches to the speculative design process. What is essential is thinking of the business, what technologies we foresee coming in & how it would all come together - in terms of society, individuals and the kind of impact it would create.

Q: What are your favourite examples from your work in speculative and critical design?

One of the art projects that I worked on was called ‘Sniffing Out the Differences’. It was basically a collection of five installations which dealt with ideas of identity, genocide, memories over there, and the medium that we took to communicate these ideas was olfactory senses like smells.

For instance, one of the installations with Jallianwala Bagh was where the team tried to tell the story of a massacre not through words, pictures or videos, but through smell - the smell of gunpowder, the smell of the auspicious day of Baisakhi.

This project was exhibited in the State Gallery of Arts, Hyderabad where we saw people who were visiting it, crying while remembering the misfortune.

I specifically chose this example because it’s very low-tech. Often when we think of speculative design, we think of sci-fi and that’s not true every time.

Q: How does the speculative design approach differ from a normal design approach? Or are they the same?

The basics remain the same. The most important factor in speculative design is to understand the fact that a design is not always just problem-solving. Speculative design is more about looking at the present and the past and then trying to find where one can go. Maybe one can end up even creating more issues rather than solving them.

For instance, in ‘Sniffing Out the Differences’ itself, there is an installation called Zeno based on genocide. In it, we speculated on a time when people would have been discriminated against based on their smell. Their smell was now associated with people’s thoughts and their actions; there would be devices put on you which would “sniff” you and tell you about your mental state and your thoughts following which society could designate you accordingly. So this does not solve any problem, but it does “speculate” a future.

Q: What lessons did you learn as a speculative designer?

With time, experience has taught me:

Not to rush

Often when a project starts, we would try to come up with as many ideas as we could just to show them to our stakeholders. Instead, put a brake and try to understand the why part of what is being built. As Simon Sinek quoted, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

You’ll not know everything always

This helps smoothen the process of both learning and unlearning. Because as much as learning is important in speculative design, unlearning what I have already done is also essential. It has prepared me to be more open towards various ideas about cultures, technologies, business opportunities and various other things. This also has opened me to ask for help. Now instead of working alone and trying to come up individually with concepts, I have learned that it is more effective if I ask for collaboration which in turn helps grow both - me as a person and my knowledge.

Q: There’s no training for most of the projects you have done. So how did you manage to bridge the gap while working on AR/VR Projects? What skills remained the same and how has your experience been?

One of the most fundamental tasks is to sketch out scenarios in which these things would be done. Whether we are developing it for traditional mediums like smartphones and web browsers, or developing it for AR/VR, the basics of ideation still remain the same.

Most of the people whom I’ve met end up focusing too much on learning how to code. They start learning Unity, then try to create and develop new things. Although I think more than developing it, it is important that you immerse yourselves first - consume as much as you can.

Similar to how, before writing a novel, you read novels and understand the genre itself, before jumping into augmented reality or virtual reality, you need to use them! The more you use them, the easier it becomes for you to go ahead and create something on your own.

Q: What advice will you give to a person who wants to enter a new field because of its emerging trends?

Engaging with different people from different backgrounds helps you learn more about emerging trends. You have to break the bubble of surrounding yourself with folks of a similar background. For instance, I like to meet people who have a film-making background, and also people who are neither engineers nor into any creative domain either. The ideas that you gain from such interactions help you break those “bubbles” we often create around us.

Q: What kind of technologies do you think will be interesting for designers to give a thought exercise to?

One of the thought exercises that I do every week, either individually or with a bunch of friends is inspired by Alice in Wonderland. If I got together with a bunch of friends, we would think of six impossible things. We try to document that individually, which keeps our brain juices running and make sure that we’re not coming up with very conventional things. In terms of technologies, there are:

  1. Bio-mimicry and material science-based technologies.
  2. Brain-machine interfaces where people are trying to come up with decoded dreams - How we are dreaming, what we are dreaming of, and trying to influence that.
  3. Controlling things - para consciousness.

The idea is basically about how we can create different interfaces with these technologies, which are neither digital nor electronic.

Q: What advice will you give to new designers in their college, which might help them navigate their learning better?

Don’t be loyal to one thing.

In my engineering days, people in my batch, even my seniors and later juniors, were too fixated on the idea that what they were studying is their identity. Since they were so fixated on this idea of identity is associated with where they are coming from, who they have been, or how they have been, they were never able to unlearn a lot of things when the situation demanded it. I think if you’re not loyal to your identity, but loyal to this idea of learning - gaining knowledge, and then trying to experiment, it will help you be 100x better than constraining yourself to one “identity”.

Q: What practical tips would you give to someone who wants to get into AR/VR? What skills do you think are essential both practically and conceptually?

Consume as much as you can.

There are multiple applications wherein you can consume already-created media. There are also very simple applications wherein one can go and create all these kinds of interactions themselves like Figma, Adobe, etc., where you can drag and drop things to experiment.

I think one should also focus on idea generation and brainstorming how it would be executed. In the fast-moving space of emerging technology, it’s very important that you test out ideas as early as possible without jumping into more complex tools like Unity. Instead, try to find tools which can get the job done. Consume as much media as you can, and find the tools which are quick and rapidly help you prototype. If you can’t find them, think of some clever ways of rapid prototyping in different domains.

Q: What kind of media do you consume which helps you generate ideas and thoughts?

One of the things that really helps is consuming a lot of cartoons or animation. Sci-Fi novels and similar genres of TV shows, movies or animations help break the barrier of what technology can do and/or what technologies can be a part of our future. At the same time also consuming cultural documentaries or art movies brings in these very subtle ideas of society and culture over there. It also teaches you how different people behave, among numerous other things. So, setting all of that really helps because when I am designing something, even if it’s pure fiction, it has to be situated in a world and the world has to be realistic.

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