Apprentice show and tell: virtual reality for wine

by Trevor Waldorf

Each apprentice in our Apprentice in User Experience program is challenged to put the skills they’ve learned to the test by creating a digital product. They are charged with identifying a current problem they’re passionate about and then following the methodology we use to create solutions for our clients. In this series, our apprentices share their projects and the learnings they picked up along the way. Apprentice Trevor Waldorf created a virtual exploration of a classic northwestern wine region, the Columbia River Valley.

“I don’t think an apprentice has ever been fired before. What’s the worst that can happen?” – Product Developer Matt Casserly

It was week six of AUX and I was about to toss my prototype in the trash, despite the fact that our focus as apprentices for the next three weeks would be testing and refining our prototypes. Why? I thought a simple five-minute walk through a virtual vineyard would sell more wine than a mobile app, no matter how fancy or full-featured. Below is my early mobile prototype: simple and locally-available wine recommendations.

Spoiler alert: it ended up working out. But at the time, it seemed like a pretty bad idea.

Problem

After spending six weeks talking to wine distributors, retail location employees, bartenders, and wine consumers I had an early problem statement: Wine retailers don’t give consumers the tools they need to make informed purchases.

Self-Conscious Sal, a qualitatively-validated user persona.

Self-Conscious Sal, a qualitatively-validated user persona.

Unless it’s a specialty shop, when you walk into a wine and liquor store, what you see is basically a warehouse. At best there are handwritten notes below each wine written using adjectives normally ascribed to characters in romantic novels. Most retailers don’t foster the category of experience that is going to inspire life-long brand loyalty or convince an intimidated consumer to try something new.

User groups for wine VR project

Breakdown of potential user groups for the mobile prototype.

After using my interview notes to craft personas and build several versions of an experience map with opportunities pinpointed therein, I prototyped a mobile flow for consumers to quickly uncover locally-available wine recommendations. It neither fell flat nor struck a chord in initial tests, which brings us to week six, when I made the leap to VR.

Wine VR project concept art

Initial concept art exploration for a virtual portrayal of the Columbia River Valley.

Hypothesis

One of the best ways to fall in love with a wine is to walk through the vineyards and wineries from which it is produced while soaking up the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the process of creating the wine. Although there are no smells or haptic sensations involved in virtual reality (yet), my hypothesis was that being immersed in a virtual vineyard could be an engaging and educational experience.

Wine VR interaction diagram

The interaction diagram depicting how users would view their surroundings

I would test this by letting users walk through a virtual representation of the Columbia River Valley wine region as they watched it evolve over 300 years, from the 1700s to the present day. At the end of the VR experience, I would let the user pick from two similar bottles of wine from different regions. It’s an imperfect test in a lot of ways, but it ended up not mattering in the end.

Outcome

Over the course of three weeks, I learned Unity, dusted off my C# skills, painted textures in Photoshop, and built out a virtual prototype of the Columbia River Valley.

Near the end I added informational “plaques” throughout, including quotes from early settlers, the discoverer of the valley, information about the winemaking process, and a journalist’s account of the area in the late 1800s.

Tech

Unity 5.x: Great documentation. Great VR support. Cross-platform. Javascript and C#. What’s not to love (a lot as it turns out, but that’s for another post)?

Testing

As it turns out, I never got to the wine preference tests. Usability testing provided perspective on more than enough problems. Text was placed too close to the user. Teleportation points allow the user to move through the environment without manually locomoting using a gamepad or keyboard, but teleportation brings its own bundle of problems around transitions, orientation, and responsiveness. One tester got stuck in a self-inflicted loop on multi-level stairs because a teleport point flipped the view 180 degrees. Big no-no.

I didn’t think significantly about pacing when building the prototype, instead focusing on the outcome of the experience, the information portrayed at each step of the user journey, and the assets needed to portray that information.

Unfortunately, pacing ended up being a huge issue. Why? People spent the majority of their time in the first 15% of the experience, because they were adjusting to VR, soaking in the view, and looking at the grass. I assumed incorrectly that people would breeze through the initial few teleport points to get to the good stuff, when the valley opened up in front of them and the plaques shared rich historical anecdotes. Instead, the simple fact that they were in VR and seeing grass sway in the wind was so engaging that everyone spent their time looking around the dullest first three locations, then breezed through the vineyard and settlement because the sun had set after 80,000 frames.

What Did I Learn?

So, so much. I learned to work with Unity. I learned about working with prefabs,  configurable joints, namespace bugs, UI elements, and current Unity VR best practices. I learned that designing an immersive experience requires a different approach than designing a flat screen experience. I learned about building textures, transferring projects between computers and platforms, some tricks for optimization, a lot of bug fixes, and asset pipelines. The list goes on.

Most importantly, I learned that the depth of VR technology, although very early, has far outpaced the depth of VR application. There is an unreal amount of opportunity floating in the air for VR projects and applications that are no-brainer, 2+2 ideas. Go build something.

If you’re at all interested in VR, email me. The wheels are already moving, you simply need to get on the train.

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design