The Sensorama, designed by filmmaker Morton Heilig in 1962, is considered one of the earliest examples of Virtual Reality. The head-mounted display took viewers on a stereoscopic bicycle ride through the streets of Brooklyn and included multisensory features like a body tilting seat to simulate motion, bursts of wind, and outdoor aromas, along with stereo sound effects.
This pioneering technology has since rapidly evolved, and today entire cottage industries have developed around the design and tech services related to immersive entertainment and advertising. VR and Augmented Reality platforms are growing exponentially, and investment is projected to only go up from here. Zion Market Research estimates that the compound annual growth rate for VR is expected to increase by 54% between 2017 and 2022, topping out at a value of $26.89 billion.
From a design perspective, VR’s 360 environment has the potential to radically redefine our understanding of typography, layout, and how we visually communicate information. However, unless graphic designers are well versed in programming languages like C# to code in Unity—the game engine that powers most VR apps—executing those new ideas becomes a major uphill battle.
That was the case for Madrid-based graphic design studio Relajaelcoco. Designers Francesco Furno and Pablo Galeano wanted to create a dynamic motion graphic experience for the VR platform Oculus, but when it came to writing the code in Unity, they were hamstrung. So rather than farming out the work to a VR developer, they brought programmer Luis Santos del Val to work with them in-house. Together, they designed a lightweight user interface that replicated the UI of After Effects to allow Relajaelcoco’s animators to design directly in Unity—in the same way Dreamweaver or other WYSIWYGs allow designers to build websites without having to code.
Furno says, “The learning curve of a tool like Unity for most graphic designers is unrealistic for small projects, so we started coding a set of tools to have something similar to After Effects inside Unity, which would enable us to easily replicate animation designs built in AE. This was a huge success and the project workflow became smooth as butter; as a result we were able to focus on creating conceptual work instead of worrying about how to code.”
Furno and Galeano founded Relajaelcoco in 2008 after graduating from design school at IED Barcelona. They now work with a small team of designers that they like to think of as “a cross between a rock band and a small gypsy family whose aesthetic is a mix of vibrant colors and good vibes.” The studio’s portfolio is largely comprised of playful illustrations and infographics, as well as sleek editorial design work for clients like Entertainment Weekly, Jot Down magazine, and Wired UK, so at first glance, their VR experience seems to be a bit of an outlier. However, Furno says they weren’t intimidated by the idea of working in the 360-degree world of VR. “For us, aesthetic language is always the same, the only part that varies is usability according to each environment,” he says.
The team was surprised to find a commercial client for their experimental app when Philip Morris commissioned Relajaelcoco to incorporate their new visual techniques into a campaign for a high tech tobacco device called iQOS, a product the cigarette company says is the first step in their commitment to creating a smoke-free future. Whether the device is actually safer than smoking cigarettes is debatable, but the application of VR-designed graphic language in Phillip Morris’s ads proved a conceptually effective vehicle for upending the brand’s ethos and traditional marketing direction.
Relajaelcoco’s original VR narrative, titled Singularity, takes its name from the hypothesis that an artificial superintelligence, “will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.” The studio embraces the notion of the singularity as a metaphor for the evolution of design, in that VR has the potential to break graphic design out of its dependence on past, vintage vernaculars and aesthetics and usher in a new era of experimental, code-driven design.
The studio is currently working to create a more robust graphic design interface for Unity that will be commercially available soon. “We believe we are in a similar situation to those ancient times when there was little to no CSS on the web,” Furno says. “VR needs a set of tools easily understood by designers, so they can focus on their jobs as visual communicators and start bringing well-designed apps to VR and Augmented Reality. We do not intend for designers start coding, but providing them with powerful tools to achieve dynamic, stunning, code-generated designs is the way to the future.”