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Exploring the Use of Gestalt Principles in Virtual Reality

The Psychology of User Experience

The general UX design concept focuses on web and mobile devices and other digital applications, and UX designers solve problems from a two-dimensional screen (Kohler, 2022). UX design in Virtual Reality (VR) completely breaks away from this traditional design concept. VR provides users an immersive, computer-generated three-dimensional experience, observed through a head-mounted display (HMD) and two controllers. The most used user experience and interaction techniques in virtual space include selection, manipulation, and locomotion (Lancaster University, 2022).



Objects and visual elements can be selected using different interaction methods.


Manipulation involves interacting with objects based on their affordance settings.


Locomotion enables users to reposition themselves within the virtual space.

Objects and visual elements can be selected using controller input, gestures recognized from its front camera, or the eye-gaze selection method. Manipulation involves interacting with objects based on their affordance settings. Locomotion enables users to reposition themselves within the virtual space. Users can realize the interaction with the UI elements within the virtual environment by using controllers, gesture recognition, audio commands, eye gaze, etc. This paper discusses the potentials and challenges that may occur during the design process of these interactions with the integration of Gestalt Principles. It explores the practices of the bottleneck of perception that David Evans explores in his book, Bottlenecks: Aligning UX Design with User Psychology within the VR context.

The Gestalt Principles of Perception 📺

The Gestalt Principles of Perception are fundamental principles that describe how humans perceive and organize visual information. These principles are often applied to UX design for digital devices in information structures and organizations (Evans, 2017). Acknowledging the three-dimensional nature of the design space in the VR context is very important, as each principle contributes uniquely to the user's perception and interaction. Unlike a conventional 2D screen, considering placement and depth becomes paramount in leveraging these principles for creating more effective and user-friendly experiences in VR. Proximity, similarity, closure, continuity, figure-ground, symmetry, and common fate guide the organization and perception of UI elements in VR environments with their potential.

The Gestalt Principles of Perceptual Observation


we tend to group similar items together


objects near each other tend to be viewed as a group


we naturally perceive things in their simplest form or organization


we perceive incomplete visual information as a complete whole


we perceive a series of elements as a continuous flow


we differentiate between the main object of focus (figure) and its background


the balanced arrangement of visual elements on either side of a central point

Common Fate

elements moving in the same direction are perceived as part of a cohesive group

Integration of Gestalt Principles in VR🥽

Visual Organization and Hierarchy: Proximity and Similarity can organize the UI elements and groups with a clear and intuitive visual hierarchy for users. Proximity can help the designer arrange the flat UI elements with different depth information and craft an individual space for relevant or next-level elements. For a curved screen with a large menu implemented, designers should consider the limitations of the user's field of vision and head movement to ensure they have an appropriate angle and distance to the displayed UI elements. Similarity can help users reduce their cognitive load of processing information when facing a much bigger screen than the real world. Emphasizing shared common characteristics such as color, shape, sound effects, and even haptic feedback from controllers contributes to a more accessible and understandable virtual environment.

Proximity and Similarity

with Eye gaze interaction

These principles can introduce users to a natural way to focus on a subject and its related information. When active in the eye-gazed selection, the non-selected area should be de-emphasized.

Proximity and Similarity

with Controller interaction

When using controllers, organizing UI elements aids in creating a visually cohesive and intuitively understandable UI system. Similar to principles applied in traditional 2D screen design. These principles help establish a clear visual hierarchy among the presentation of the information panel and UI element with depth information in a space.

Proximity and Similarity

with Voice interaction

Audio commands can work with eye-gaze selection to create a consistent auditory experience, and the common orders include select, yes, confirm, go back, etc. Audio input can also reduce the effort required to understand and engage with the virtual environment.

Reducing Cognitive Load: Closure and continuity help reduce cognitive load by guiding users to complete visual patterns seamlessly. The spatial environment of VR introduces a Z-axis dimension to all design elements, varying the user's perception of information in this immersive realm compared to a conventional flat screen (MacNamara, 2016). A flat UI group should be presented on a flat surface in the virtual space to simulate our habitual interaction with the UI system in the real world. On the other hand, users will perceive the UI element on the 3D objects differently with an attribution of spatial context. The Closure principle can be applied to enhance the user experience when exploring the 3D UI system. For instance, strategically mapping UI elements on a curved screen, segmented into different sections, encourages users to intuitively move their heads and explore more within the virtual environment. The intentional use of Continuity not only enhances the sense of exploration but also reduces the risk of overwhelming users with too much information, fostering a more seamless experience.

Closure and continuity

with Eye gaze interaction

Continuity assists the user in exploring the 360-degree world by guiding eye movements smoothly through the VR environment and minimizes disruptions from the limitation of FOV. And they can also enhance the overall flow of the user's visual experience by helping the user to discover the off-screen content.

Closure and continuity

with Controller interaction

Applying closure principles can present 3D visual patterns that allow users to complete the interaction seamlessly and have a more fluid and engaging experience. The introduction of depth allows users to perceive a flat surface not just as an isolated plane but as a side or facet of a three-dimensional object.

Closure and continuity

with Voice interaction

Closure and continuity in audio feedback contribute to a more coherent interaction. This theory can help the user perceive their location with the spatial sound effects in an open space, and get a more immersive experience.

Enhanced Immersion: By leveraging figure-ground principles, designers can enhance the visual hierarchy of information by emphasizing important UI elements against the background. For instance, a critical UI element can be visually determined from the surroundings by conveying depth information and de-emphasizing the description or supportive information at the back. The sense of dimensionality can be effective in designing the navigation experience in the virtual space as well. The illusion of depth can make the UI element catch attention, convey depth, and minimize surrounding distractions.

Figure-ground principle

with Eye gaze interaction

Figure-ground principles guide eye-gaze interactions, making it easier for users to identify the focused elements within the VR space. This principle can applied as a hover state in UI design to make the visual cues more effective.

Figure-ground principle

with Controller interaction

Leveraging figure-ground principles enhance the immersive experience by emphasizing important elements against the background, aiding users in focusing on key information components.

Figure-ground principle

with Voice interaction

Figure-ground principles can be applied to the sound that stands out against the background soundtrack. This principle can be employed in transactional contexts within the VR environment.

The conventional hardware design standard is to integrate traditional game controller concepts to meet intuitive design functionality, flexibility, and superior comfort in the virtual world. Rather than hand tracking, facial recognition, or other evolving technologies, the primary hardware can provide much cheaper interactive solutions, such as gesture-based controller input, eye-gaze selection, and audio commands. A well-balanced user experience in VR always enables users to stimulate multiple sensors simultaneously. A positive interaction always includes visual information with appropriate location, dimension, and rotation. This visual experience is complemented by sound effects and haptic responses from controllers, creating an organic and seamless user experience. The ultimate goal is to simulate the object interaction of the real world to solve the bottleneck of perception for users in the virtual space. This table illustrates how Gestalt Principles influence the user experience with different user interaction inputs in a VR context, emphasizing the importance of integrating these principles in designing UI elements to optimize usability and engagement.

Challenges in VR UX Design🚨

Implementing The Gestalt Principles of Perception in the UX design of VR can create UI elements that align with users' cognitive processes and reduce affordance (Polys, Bowman, and North, 2011). With the awareness of empathy and ethics applied during the interaction design process, these visual cues can create a sense of coherence and connection between the related user experience of other digital devices and empower users within the immersive world. To optimize potential and mitigate risks associated with integrating philosophical theories, designers should consider the following problems that may cause ethical issues. 

  • VR immerses users in a virtual world within a physical space, necessitating a focus on ensuring application usage occurs in a safe environment. Visual cues should not encourage interactions beyond the designated safety area, and a buffer space with notifications should be present to alert users.

  • Visual information must be configured for readability, functionality, and accessibility, emphasizing onboarding and orientation for first-time users (Schaefer, 2022).  

  • Proper alignment based on context and fidelity to VR usability standards is critical. The application should also allow users to adjust their position and vision to alleviate motion sickness and disorientation in the virtual space.

  • Providing users with suggested play times and implementing reminders is essential for preventing addiction. 

Moreover, addressing broader concerns, the design should incorporate governance mechanisms for data ownership, usage, consent, and protection. In the era of evolving personal data, encompassing biometric data, eye movements, motion profiles, physical likeness, private environments, behaviors, and judgments as part of spatial user data (Hillmann, 2021), it is crucial to anticipate and counter potential vulnerabilities to manipulation. These multifaceted issues must be thoroughly considered and effectively addressed during the VR user experience design process.

Works Cited

Kohler, T. (2022). Psychology for UX: Study guide. Nielsen Norman Group. 

Lancaster University. (2022). Interaction techniques in VR. FutureLearn. 

Evans, David C.(2017) Bottlenecks: Aligning UX Design with User Psychology. Apress.

Hillmann, C. (2021). 4.5 and 6.6.2. In UX for XR: User experience design and strategies for Immersive Technologies. essay, Apress.

MacNamara, W. (2016) Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Gestalt Principles of Perceptual Observation for Virtual Reality User Interface Design. Master's thesis, 2016. 

Polys, N. F., Bowman, D. A., & North, C. (2011). The role of Depth and Gestalt cues in information-rich virtual environments. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 69(1-2), 30-51.

Schaefer, M. (2022). Designing in VR. Matt Schaefer. 

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