“We prototype exhaustively and don’t really try to develop ‘concepts”’. Instead we try to find the most elegant way to solve the product.”
Please tell your background, what inspired you to start doing industrial design? (Peter Bristol) My path to ID…I grew up in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest. My family lived outside a small town in eastern Washington state, near the Canadian and Idaho borders. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outdoors but I also always liked drawing, painting and making things. My parents were always incredibly supportive of anything I wanted to do. My dad was an architect, so I also got exposure to design as a profession throughout my life. Discovering industrial design… I attended college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA and for the first year or so, I didn’t have a passion for a specific major. Funnily, I saw someone (now a lifelong design friend) sketching in a specific style and struck up a conversation. The explanation of industrial design struck a chord. I hadn’t really thought too much about where products come from, always feeling they came from “brands” not actually people. When I realised you could help create products, it clicked, and I switched majors almost instantaneously.
How did you join Oculus (now acquired by Facebook)?
(PB) I was working as Creative Director for a small (~30 person) consultancy Carbon Design Group. We worked on a pretty big range of products and Oculus was one of our clients in 2013. The entire team was stoked on the projects as well as a bit moonstruck by the allure of Virtual Reality (at that time, Oculus was a tech industry darling). We had been working with the early Oculus folks on what would eventually become Rift and Touch for about a year when they approached our team to join them as they joined Facebook. Timing made sense for the firm for a few reasons and the decision was made. The Carbon team was an important part of early Oculus hardware development, and we were able to continue working on the products as part of Facebook. Through the acquisition, the Carbon ID team became the nucleus for the Oculus ID team and I got the amazing opportunity to lead it.
“I have always been much more interested in finding the right answer and solving the product problem rather than taking a specific set of steps to get there.”
It must have been a big transition when the company got acquired by Facebook. Are there also changes in design approach?
(PB) Joining Facebook was definitely a transition, but rather than a specific event, I feel it has been a near constant evolution since I joined. Our consulting work had become more and more Oculus heavy in the year leading up to the acquisition, so in a way the transition started before the acquisition. We actually worked out of the Carbon office for the first year, so again, the transition was gradual. The early Oculus leadership really tried to keep the Oculus team separate from Facebook as many purchased companies do. For industrial design specifically, it is hard to pinpoint exactly how or if we changed our design processes (maybe a bit like turning up the temperature slowly). I have always been much more interested in finding the right answer and solving the product problem rather than taking a specific set of steps to get there. In that way, we are still quite similar. We prototype exhaustively and don’t really try to develop “concepts”. Instead we try to find the most elegant way to solve the product, generally feeling challenged to find even one truly “appropriate” solution. With Oculus now being one of a few product areas of the FRL (Facebook Reality Labs) organisation, we are able to take our approach to a much broader set of similarly audacious problems.
“VR is enabled through stereoscopic lenses/screens that allow you to see 3-dimensional virtual environments. Spatial audio helps strengthen an understanding and belief. Whether controllers, hand tracking or other accessories, input is key to participating in the virtual world.”
Oculus Rift was one of the world’s first consumer virtual reality systems, and you have recently launched the second generation of Oculus Quest. How would you best describe VR? (PB) I am not sure Rift was the first consumer VR system, but we are clearly “a” major, if not “the” major catalyst in the current age of VR. I believe that the investments that Oculus/Facebook are putting into VR will ensure that it is here to stay this time. It is still early days for VR but it feels that the Quest line has set the right trajectory. Quest 2, that we launched recently, is an incredible next step for VR and is proving to be a critical inflection point in bringing VR to life. Describing VR. I think most people have an intuitive understanding of what VR is: technology that allows you to feel like you are someplace you are not. While eventually this may be done through augmenting more senses, at its core, VR is enabled through stereoscopic lenses/screens that allow you to see 3-dimensional virtual environments. Spatial audio helps strengthen an understanding and belief. Whether controllers, hand tracking or other accessories, input is key to participating in the virtual world. VR is pretty magical in its ability to transport you to new places and we are still at the very beginning for both the HW and SW.
“I think understanding the constraints and opportunities of a problem is key for any product, whether it is a first generation or a well trodden space.”
What is the most challenging thing about designing innovative products like VR headsets that don’t have much frame of reference? (PB) I think understanding the constraints and opportunities of a problem is key for any product, whether it is a first generation or a well trodden space. Understanding technical constraints and the push-pull of evolving them for elegant integration is important for any consumer electronics device. From a hardware standpoint, there are so many conflicting needs with VR headsets, but the goal is clear, you want the devices to be light and comfortable such that you forget you are even wearing them. From screens and lenses to batteries and cameras, the technologies that enable more immersive VR experiences come at size, cost and complexity hits to the product. While on one hand we need to rapidly advance the state of the art, we also need to make VR physically lighter and more comfortable, less technical feeling, and more accessible to help adoption. This balancing act is at the core of the product decisions. VR controllers had a different invention aspect to them, especially Touch, the first incarnation that launched alongside Rift. I would say we had less of a “frame of reference” than headsets on day one. Developing the idea that we wanted your virtual hand pose to match your real hand pose was critical. Then trying to find the right balance between allowing your real hands to be virtual hands and your hands to be controls was the problem. The input set we developed that pulled from traditional gaming while also allowing intuitive hand dexterity. This combined with the integration of the tracking solution defined the product.
And what is the best part?
(PB) I think the work itself is really interesting and I haven’t found many aspects that aren’t exciting to me. After working for around 7.5 years in the space of VR, it is pretty rewarding to see the current success of the Oculus Quest 2. Almost without a doubt, the things I am working on currently feel both the most challenging and the best.
What is the most important factor designing consumer technology products?
(PB) Oh wow! I don’t think that there is a single most important factor, instead I think it is the full recipe of the product that is most important. Making a product make sense from the HW, to the SW, to the business model etc is complicated and hard to get “right”. I do what I can to help any project I work on successful with the skills that I have.
You are also designing lightings for companies like Juniper or Visual Comfort. Where do you get inspired from? (PB) I really enjoy both of those partnerships and it is awesome to have such different types of work. They do contrast significantly with the work in consumer electronics in all the right ways. In general I tend to not be so inspired by other things or products, but simply by the problem or idea I am working on. With lighting (and other less constrained projects like home goods) it is often possible to have a more singular idea that stands on it’s own. While there are constraints to make it happen in the right way, the invention aspect can sometimes feel a bit more pure. It is a nice contrast to the complexity of bringing platforms like VR to life. I feel lucky to have a chance to work on such a range.
“I like the idea that lighting is almost a material element, like wood or concrete, that architects and interior designers get to use with as they develop a space.”
Why is lighting so important in our life, particularly beautiful ones like yours?
(PB) Well, being able to see is pretty important, so there’s that :). Lighting plays such different roles in a space depending on how it is used. On one hand, there is a selfish, “centerpiece” nature to things like chandeliers and at the other end of the spectrum can and track lighting can be almost purely utilitarian. I also like the idea that lighting is almost a material element, like wood or concrete, that architects and interior designers get to use with as they develop a space.
What else are you passionate about designing?
(PB) tend to be pretty excited about the things I work on, so the easy answer is everything. I think finding a team and environment that you enjoy working in is as important as the project itself.
If you were not doing what you are doing now what would you be doing?
(PB) That is an impossible question to answer! I feel lucky to get to do the type of work that I am doing these days and optimistically, I hope that an alternate path would have landed me doing something equally as interesting and satisfying.