The Virtual Frontier

by Angela Riechers
Illustrated by Bráulio Amado

Right now, virtual mixed and augmented reality is the wild west of typography. As these environments grow and develop, so do the demands on type and graphic designers – now being challenged to envision letterforms from all angles. Angela Riechers delves into this rapidly growing and changing world, to uncover exactly what it takes to create type for these new worlds.

Modern typography marches in lockstep with technology, as it has since the written letter’s infancy centuries ago. During the days of the Roman Empire, striking words with a chisel into stone was cutting edge technology. Fast-forward to the 21st Century, where the newest frontiers for typography are the worlds of virtual, mixed, and augmented reality. These brave new design environments put fresh demands on type designers as well as graphic designers, and raise a thorny tangle of questions about legibility, letterform design, and typeface selection.

Previous technologies for print and screen are still useful, but only up to a point. For a user, the spatial aspect and immediacy of being surrounded by type in the midst of a VR environment requires a different way of thinking about both typography and the information it conveys. VR/AR/MR now ask designers to consider such variables as motion, volume, UI/UX, and sound to get the most benefit out of the full, immersive experience they provide.

Effective and artful communication, no matter what new tools and technologies become available, is the prime directive for typographers. El Lissitzky told us in 1923 that “the new book demands the new writer,” and experimentation remains a critical component in forging any new area of practice.

Designers such as Muriel Cooper at MIT’s Media Lab began exploring type in dimensional spaces in 1994 with her pioneering work in the Visible Languages Workshop, and before that, artist Jeffrey Shaw undertook a full virtual world type experience with his 1989 project The Legible City, where the visitor rides a stationary bicycle through a simulated representation of a city made up of computer-generated, three-dimensional letters. As different modes of content delivery for dimensional type (as yet, there’s no agreement amongst developers and manufacturers as to what’s going to work best: contact lenses, an implant, a handheld or wearable device?) become widely available, the accessibility of the technology will mean that more and more people will access content in virtual environments.

Because VR is a closed digital experience replacing the sensations of the real world, and AR or MR superimposes digital information onto the real environment, the typographic considerations of each have some key differences. VR can be entirely its own fantasy land, while MR means the type has to play nice with all the sensory input coming in all around us.

Jay Iorio, Director of Innovation at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), says, “In AR, imagine you have email coming in, somebody at a remote location who wants to conference with you as a hologram on the street, plus a constantly updating news feed, all of it integrated in real-time through artificial intelligence. So what is type in that scenario? Is it a crawl, a bunch of floating texts? Pop-ups? It comes down to an issue of interface design for a relentless stream of content. “What’s the mechanism to manage and interact with all that, do I stick my hand up and touch an illusion of a button and it disappears? None of this has been decided. Right now, type in VR really is the Wild West.”

Joshua To, Design Manager/VR AR UX at Google, says, “Many of the basic rules around typographic contrast and readability for print or 2D screens change in VR. When type becomes even a little bit more volumetric, the way people perceive it and interact with it changes.

The type needs to be rooted in something. If it’s large or extruded we wonder: OK, is it made out of foam, is it made out of bubbles, aluminum, polycarbonate? Those things really matter, otherwise it gets a little uncanny for the user.” Sigmund Freud defined the uncanny as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” What’s more familiar than the alphabets, words, sentences, texts we’ve grown accustomed to? Which is why it’s potentially disturbing to experience these passive design elements taking on a suddenly active, volumetric role, joining us in the 3D world.

The environment the type “lives” in also has to make sense. For instance, in a VR space like the poster gallery created for the Google Arts & Culture VR app, the users respond most positively if the text adheres to the familiar typographic conventions of a museum exhibit. Perhaps typography for MR needs to be reactive for the environment it overlays. Could it be geospecific for different environments: inside a classroom, outside in Helsinki, outside in Hawaii? Brighter in dark cities, darker in brilliant sunshine? Can type respond to content in a way that adds to a user’s understanding?

For example, in a newsfeed, does the text gradually dim or fade as the news grows “stale”—does it change typeface, case, or color for important breaking news, and can this be personalized to each person’s preferences? The question of what happens to the process of reading in a VR environment is of key importance to designers; though the answer is elusive, the biomechanical considerations are significant.

Dan Rhatigan, Senior Type Manager at Adobe, says, “Our binocular vision means that our eyes are meant to work in tandem, but in VR each eye gets its own direct input.” Many users of VR find themselves nauseous as their brains struggle to adjust and process the flood of information coming in via a previously unknown delivery system.

“When we read books, newspapers, and even websites, we control the relationship between our eyes and the text. Our eyes move across the page, but our general gaze remains fixed,” says Jaime Van Wart, a recent graduate of the MFA Program in Graphic Design at the California Institute of the Arts. “VR introduces many factors and variables that can interfere with the reading process. Does the type move? Does our gaze move? Do we look at the type straight on or at angles we aren’t accustomed to? Paragraphs of text might function adequately as texture in a VR environment, but to really render the text readable, the amount of movement needs to be controlled to a point where the VR itself might not add anything to the experience.”

In VR, type becomes physical, elastic, monumental, dimensional, confrontational—and distorted. Sharleen Chen, another alum of the Cal Arts MFA design program, says, “Designing for VR is designing for a 360 degree globe with you at the center. How do you warp type around a concave surface without distorting it? Or do you embrace the distortion and just say, “This is how it works here, that’s all.” Or could the type be designed to respond in such a way that it undistorts itself as it approaches the portion of a user’s field of vision where it’s readable?

Display typography is far more legible in VR than blocks of text because the viewer’s constantly shifting gaze makes reading text more challenging. As longer bodies of text move around within the 360° space, it becomes difficult for the viewer to focus on reading.

“For dimensional type, I believe sans serif typefaces are currently best suited for 3D space,” says Van Wart. “Serif typefaces seen at extreme camera angles produce interference and difficulty in reading word shape. Extruded serif typefaces also call too much attention to the effect itself, while sans serifs, especially more monolinear forms, feel more natural when extruded.”

Bit by bit, designers will devise innovative solutions to get the most out of type in virtual environments, and create typefaces with an eye toward maximum performance in 3D. As the technology for content delivery improves, type will evolve too.

Web type—initially primitive and not graphically pleasing, by and large—became refined, sophisticated, and gained design credentials of its own as designers addressed the requirements of letterform design for screens, and as screens gained in sharpness and pixel resolution. A book is a framing device for a narrative; a painting in a museum has a frame around it; a piece of music has its own structure and framework. VR is the first design environment to dispense with the frame, because the user is an integral part of the experience.

Across a range of design contexts, text is still how our civilization gets passed down—images are powerful but imprecise, too open to individual interpretation and manipulation. Type in any format cleanly conveys the best of our ideas, literature, science, art, poetry. What if VR becomes a way to reintroduce the culture to text and the depth of thought that goes with it? Apart from the satisfaction of overcoming the formidable typographic challenges presented by this recent format, the social goal is one well worth pursuing. Text is what keeps us together.

This feature is extracted from The Recorder Issue 5. You can pre-order The Recorder Issue 5 from our Shop.