Reality and push buttons

During a panel discussion at SXSW last week we talked about buttons. One of the panelists explained that if you implement a virtual push button in VR, you need to do it right.

When users of your VR system presses a virtual push button with their controller, it’s not good enough for them to see the button go down. They also need to have some indication that their controller is touching the button, even before they actually push it. This feedback can be visual, vibrational, or both.

We then discussed how, in this sense, the semantics of a virtual push button in a VR world is pretty much the same as the semantics of a virtual push button on your computer screen. When you position your mouse over a virtual button on your computer screen (such as any hyperlink on a web page), you see the button change color.

This visual feedback is very important. It tells you for sure that your mouse is positioned over the correct button, before you ever click down.

We talked about how we get this feedback for free with a physical push button, like in an elevator or on a computer keyboard. In that case the feedback is tactile: We can feel our finger pressing against the button, so we know we’ve made contact. And then we can decide whether to go ahead and press the button.

At that point in the panel discussion, I pointed out that all push buttons are virtual, including old-fashioned physical ones. After all, there is no such thing in nature as a push button. They only exist because we made them up.

It just happens that we used to make all our push buttons out of atoms, because that was the only way we could. But that doesn’t change the more important point: Push buttons have always been a kind of virtual reality, even the physical ones.

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