The Role of Typography in AR and VR Experiences

Dr. Nadine Chahine

UK Type Director and Legibility Expert, Monotype

Augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) are among the most anticipated and promising technologies of the future. While AR/VR concepts have been around for quite some time, we are now closer to making them part of mainstream life ­— and to realizing the potential they have to change the way we work, play and interact with the world.

One of the most important considerations for any brand taking on the challenge of making AR/VR more mainstream is ensuring a great user experience. While that may seem obvious or simple, it’s actually been quite complicated. Developers have made great strides in creating augmented or virtual environments (and the devices that allow us to experience them), but one area that remains a barrier to creating that experience is the implementation of text.

The Challenges of Text and Legibility

Setting text in AR/VR presents new design challenges that are dramatically different from almost anything that has been designed for these environments in the past. If text is illegible, it has a negative impact on the user experience, and by extension, the brand that is presenting the content. In a work setting, legibility problems can lead to serious consequences. In a medical setting for instance, this could be a misdiagnosis or an incorrect application of care. Even in use cases around entertainment, illegible text can lead to unpleasant experiences that put off customers. Text in AR is presented on unpredictable and ever-changing backgrounds, and often with the need to be receptive to information in both the foreground and background. The first step in solving this problem is to understand the relationship between text and legibility.

Through research we’ve conducted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, we’ve found that typeface style, size, weight, width and case are all factors that have a significant impact on legibility. For example, the effect of text size on legibility is usually quite dramatic. We’ve also observed that under good rendering conditions, Light and Regular weights are more legible than a Bold weight. However, when the background is presenting competing information for eyes to process, would a Bold weight block more of the background and reduce the amount of “noise” competing for attention? While we’ve made a lot of progress in the area of legibility, there are still more questions we’re striving to answer.

Solving for Scalability

Brands looking to launch AR/VR applications should also prepare to scale that experience across languages and spatial changes that come with various languages. For instance, text in a Latin font could take up just one line in an AR/VR application, but that could grow to multiple lines if that text appears in a different language, and possibly a different font. And then there is localization, which adds another element that must be considered by brands, especially if the application is going to be offered in multiple geographies.

Developers are also dealing with enabling their applications to work across many different devices, from low-end smartphones to high-end and high-powered head-mounted displays. The AR/VR experience needs to scale across those devices to ensure a positive user experience. Developers must consider how their text will appear across the range of possible devices, both in terms of what’s available now, and what may be on the horizon.

Text Solutions Now, Tech Solutions on the Horizon

The good news is that through our research and experience in type design, we are able to identify a number of font families that are both highly legible and scalable. These are families have characteristics that make them more legible than other typefaces, like ample inter- and intra-character spacing, open shapes, unambiguous forms and varying proportions. Additionally, they include a variety of languages, as well as supporting technologies that allow them to be used in applications across a wide range of hardware quality.

Additionally, there is technology being developed that will further improve the experience of using text in AR/VR environments. These areas include rendering in ever-changing backgrounds, for example. Since there is still work to be done, developers and brands must be very careful about where and how they deploy text in their augmented and virtual environments.

While it’s impossible to predict every potential factor that could impact text, they should test out which typefaces work best for their environments and applications. There will be a certain amount of trial-and-error, but by starting with fonts that have proven to be legible and scalable, they’ll be on the right path for finding solutions that suit their use cases, while further technological developments are in progress.