HypoReality – designing for less

Alastair Somerville
3 min readApr 27, 2017


Sainsbury’s in Stroud

I have just received the second version of Here’s augmented audio buds (now with music playback). I had the first version off Kickstarter and they remain a useful tool when discussing sensory environments and perception.

Here audio buds connect to an app that allows you to adjust, in real time, the sound you hear around you. They were designed for live music fans who want to ‘mix’ music on the fly. Adding more bass, clarifying the vocals, lowering the crowd noise.

It’s that last use case that’s interesting to me. How technology can be used to control sensory environments to lower the amount of information we perceive.

Mixed Reality

In most discussions of Mixed Reality, the drive is to augment the world that people sense and perceive. Adding more information by tagging and explaining surroundings.

This is a valid use case but it is part of the technological drive to think more is better. The egotism of design that more of what you think matters should matter to the user.

There is an alternative direction.

HypoReality – from Greek hypo meaning less.

Rather than using location aware technology to augment the senses and perceived environment, use it to remove it.

  • To lower the noise
  • To reduce the glare
  • To eliminate the clutter

In an hyporeal environment, people have fewer sensory and cognitive stresses.

Audio filters in Here app

Cognitive accessibility and design for the mind

This is related to my interest in cognitive accessibility. Designing better environments for people who have cognitive impairments: autistic people and people with dementia are the key stakeholders.

However, in more general human centered design terms, this is also about design for the mind. Making environments that are less stressful for all people.

  • Enabling some people to make journeys who couldn’t because of the overwhelming sensory stresses.
  • Making many people to make journeys without the stress of sensory overload in an attention-grabbing economy.

There’s a lot of work in academic research in understanding this design area. There is also work in both physical and digital architecture to create the foundations of design standards.

When you next look at a new technology, think about how it could reduce load and remove stress.

Design for hyporeality.


I have been doing some work in mixed reality design lately (virtual and augmented realities) and some issues of what the User Interface (UI) for HypoReality would be have come up.

The diagram above summarised some ideas. The UI enables individual agency by allowing control of three elements:

  • Velocity
  • Fidelity
  • Intensity


How quickly an experience occurs can be problematic. Enabling control over how quickly and in what order events occur may help.

That would mean controls over the speed of experience, the repetition of experience and the narrative order. The first two elements are relatively easy and related to Scrubbing tools in use already. Shifting narrative order or deleting elements is however, very complex.


How real does reality need to be to be a ‘good’ experience. Video game playing, in particular retro-gaming, has shown that visual fidelity is not necessarily that important.

There is however, good research from the BBC that audio fidelity can make or break an experience.

Controlling fidelity could be achieved, especially when framed in terms of the wire framing and architecture of digital products already. These elements are normally covered up. There is a possible Modernist argument for revealing the structures to enable use. Form follows function in digital design terms.


This post started with the presumption of Attention Economy that is forcing people to pay attention and to be immersed in strongly sensory environments. This is clearly terrible.

So the final UI control is the obvious one – control over the sensory load of a place. The volume, the colour, the feel: all those overwhelming elements of perception.

This is the volume control for mixed reality.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX