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This question is about what you could call applied information aesthetics, so I hope it fits here.

So, by reality I mean a concept or system of presenting information to a user in a way so that she can understand the information structure, thus interact with it in a least-efforts manner. I use the term reality here, as my question is related to creating an augmented/virtual reality user experience.

A typical AR/VR setting presents the user with a reality that is different to the world we live in only on a first glance. So for example an alien world the user could immerse himself into would probably have large mushrooms instead of trees, animals would be larger/smaller than we experience them, leaves of plants would be red instead of green, etc. So this world is different, yes, still the user experience references concepts of our world.

Now, my intent is to create an AR/VR UI for presenting molecules. In the nanoscopic world of molecules and atoms, any concept like colour, sound or shape are initially invalid. Still the user should be able to interact with the molecules, to design them, which means she should get a reasonable amount of information from the UI that helps in doing so. It might sound a little strange to raise that problem, but be assured that the usual 3D-representation of molecules transferred to an immersive environment is utterly, utterly stupid, because the user experience does not satisfy the user expectation. (When an atom is a football-sized sphere in front of you, coloured in a metallic glow because it depicts iron, you just gosh and ask yourself the question: "Ehm, seriously?").

In the end, the question boils down to:

  1. How would you approach designing an information representation in such a "reference-less" case?
  2. What criteria would you suggest to label a design as "valid"?
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    I'd probably do a bit of informal research (structured conversations with potential users) and see how they conceptualise the world of molecules and atoms. Professional scientists might see things very differently to the general public.
    – PhillipW
    May 6, 2017 at 10:37
  • So how does putting a user in that nanoscopic world help them to interact with the molecules better? The idea sounds very interesting, but you probably need to define the problem that you want to solve first and then it will be easier to come up with a suitable solution.
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 4, 2017 at 23:44

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Just adding to what Michael Lai said, another place you could look is chemistry textbooks. If you're interested in information visualization, Edward Tufte has some pretty good books on the subject. Also, having a metallic electron field floating in front of me sounds pretty boss! You're right that it won't be accurate, but you could argue any model of any thing isn't accurate. For example, colors don't even exist in the real world... they're created in our brains anyway. If we had adapted to live in a micro or nano environment, we might see those clouds in color. Good luck with your project! Sounds awesome.

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    +1 For mentioning Edward Tufte. I am sure if someone is going to have a creative way of imagining or envisioning something like this, it would be him!
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 5, 2017 at 8:42
  • Thx for the hint with Tufte! Had a glance at some of his books, might indeed be helpful. Jun 5, 2017 at 10:27
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Perhaps what you need is something similar to techniques that have already been applied in many different game HUD design concepts. A typical game generally puts two different perspectives of the world in front of the user: there is a first person view of the world, where things are to scale with respective to the actual player, then there's a 'map-view' of the world that they are in.

So basically you have at least two views on different scales, one showing a 1:1 scale of the person compared to the world and another showing the size of the person with respect to the rest of the world so they can use it to navigate around the world easily.

And in your first person view it is important to understand what interactions are involved, because this is how your interface will be designed. Perhaps this will be a gesture and voice driven interface, so all you really need is to display the triggers for interactions and the molecules can take on an abstract form. But since there is really no reference that I can draw on, it should be quite a lot of fun to test and experiment with different ideas.

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  • Wow, that was valuable input. Of course it doesn't help immediately, but having a "first person" and a "map" view for chemicals is a damn good idea! Now I only have to figure out, what that would mean for chemistry. Thx a lot! Jun 5, 2017 at 7:51
  • @ThiloBauer Just out of interest, if you were going to do some more investigation on this, perhaps the best starting point would be to talk to some chemists and then a UX designer. If you asked a UX designer they would probably tell you this as well like I am :)
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 5, 2017 at 8:44

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