Insights - Design & Product

Typography in Augmented Reality

As the technology gets closer to mass consumerisation, designer Niteesh Yadav says it’s time to think about typography in AR

smart technology in industry mobile 4.0 or 5.0 concept , user use smart glasses with augmented mixed virtual reality technology in real 3d for show the map,shop, and walk way path to gate in airport

We are stepping into the era of immersive/mirror worlds where an infinite number of realities will coexist together. This might sound like it’s straight out of a sci-fi movie, but it is happening as you read this.

The World of Floating Interfaces

The driving force today is spatial computing – seamless user interfaces that merge with our three dimensional world. Spatial computing defines headset-based augmented reality and virtual reality experiences that extend beyond gaming. Virtual reality (VR) involves interactions in a computer-generated world via a headset, while augmented reality (AR) is about digitally overlaying content onto the real world.

With AR, spatial interfaces extend beyond two dimensional screens. Soon, headsets like Microsoft Hololens, Oculus Quest, and Magic Leap may take us into an era of immersive worlds and layered reality. Digital interaction will become increasingly normalised, and as we evolve into a world with interactive spatial interfaces, design patterns will need to evolve too.

Augmented Reality’s Time Has Come

New technology like AR tends to follow a well-established trajectory. It starts as a research concept, undergoes development and breakthroughs in military application or enterprise solutions, which catalyse advancement and generate the funding necessary for it to evolve into a finished consumer product. It can then reach maturity and be produced for the mass market, as companies shift strategies from organisational solutions to the consumer market.

AR has taken decades to evolve and may soon be reaching a catalytic inflection point in its development. As the business world moves towards a remote work ecosystem as a response to the Covid 19 pandemic, tech companies must develop solutions to make remote working more interactive and immersive. Applications like Spatial already allow you to be in the same room virtually with friends and colleagues. As AR continues to evolve, we are likely to see its progression from limited interactivity and basic applications (like Google Glass) to fully-fledged computing platforms in your glasses. 

The Unexplored World of AR Typography

AR typography is a fascinating, but under-researched field. I started researching AR headset typography back in 2017, while doing my Masters in Typeface Design at the University of Reading, UK. Over time, I have built my own corpus of research, ranging from Ivan Sutherland’s work in 1966 at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, to present day developments.

Augmented Reality at work in an operating theatre

The Need for New Classifications

Currently, typography is divided into three major categories:

  1. Display type (big headings)
  2. Body text (for reading, medium size) 
  3. Reference text (small text like captions and sidenotes)

This classification is insufficient for the needs of typography in spatial interfaces and hence I have designed a new hierarchy, given the array of possibilities inherent in AR.

The spatial region around the user in AR can be divided into three regions, and these, in my opinion, should be the basis for typographical classification:

  1. Heads-up display region (HUD), which remains constantly in the users view, like a status bar on a phone. 
  2. UI region, where experiences are displayed, usually within 1.5 to 2 metres of the user. 
  3. Environment region, beyond the UI, which displays all environment based information, like AR signages, which exist only in the digital world. 

Similar to the two-dimensional world, typography for AR must also take into account factors like visual appeal, medium of use and situational utility. However, the spatial world presents a far greater variety of scenarios for typesetting and typeface. Variables like position, dimensional behaviour and state of the user relative to the text, all have to be considered for designing different types of text like body text, anchored text, responsive text, moving text and so on.

I have developed a classification for this as illustrated in the table below.

Cross-device Typography

There are several examples of typography developed specifically for a device – from Bell Centennial for phone books to Bookerly for the Kindle and SF Compact for the Apple Watch. 

AR may also require typography custom-designed for devices. To be truly effective, however, it will also need to take into account cross-platform functionality and similar technical issues. A one-size-fits-all solution will not work cohesively, as people will have different devices with different computing speeds.

The Future of AR Typography is Variable

Despite significant breakthroughs in the technology itself, AR typeface systems are still stuck in the 1990’s. Even the largest platforms for AR applications, like the Unity game engine, do not support evolved type options. AR text still uses pixel-based design, instead of vector rendering. Platforms will need to develop features that provide better support for type. Given that AR is yet to become a mass-adoption technology, both designers and platforms are cautious about investing time and resources behind it. 

Sans Serif typesetting is likely to dominate in AR, because new generations are largely consuming content with san serif typefaces. I believe, though, that the future of AR typography is best represented by variable fonts – a single font with an infinite number of type styles. This will lend itself to responsive text, which responds to ambient lighting, user movement and viewing angles. This will be an integral part of AR typography in the future.

However, platform issues necessitate a collective effort to make this happen. 

Currently, no typefaces have been designed to solve AR specific needs. My own efforts are to design an AR type family called ARone,which will provide a quality reading experience across devices. It supports both Latin and Devanagari scripts. It will launch at the end of 2020, once testing is complete. I believe that AR will help the world move beyond latin scripts, allowing real-time translations that enable us to communicate anywhere in the world.  

Additional resources

You can read more about text in AR here
You can watch a video about the future of AR typography here

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