Designing for VR: Presence

As a hardcore gamer, I was always inspired by how much games immerse users. Video games are the most engaging media form. Unlike music, movies, and books, video games offer the user an experience where their presence and engagement matter and influence the story. This is where a “player representation” is required.

Player “objects” like Mario in Super Mario Bros. or the yellow circular disk in Mrs. Pacman give the player the ability to project themselves within the media. Thus, increasing the sense of presence and engagement within the media.

Presence here is a key element when designing games. As technologies developed, users started feeling more and more present. Role playing games like Skyrim, Sims, World of Warcraft, Dark Souls, etc… have given players more control on the player representation within the environment. This included gender, looks, race, height, eye color, hair length, and even horoscopes and blood types. These methods have further increased the level of presence within video game experiences.

Presence is not just a key element in designing games, it was the key element for developing VR applications. Fun fact for you, VR as a term never meant a headset you wear similar to the one in the image below. VR simply meant an application where users projected themselves within the virtual space of the application.

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What is Virtual Reality Now?

Technology has now developed further allowing us to use our real world representations (bodies) to interact with the environment seamlessly as if it is a real space we are occupying. This is thanks to head mounted displays (HMD) – Now these are the headsets we call VR (I will use VR to refer to HMD VR in the rest of this article). The introduction of HMDs have helped users physically occupy virtual space and feel more present within the virtual environment. Users can walk around and look around the environment. Devices like the Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR have allowed users to watch 360 videos and occupy 3D virtual reality spaces.

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360 videos and 3D virtual spaces were a good step in displaying and consuming video content in a more immersive way however, it wasn’t enough. Interaction has always been key for making users feel truly present within the space and the application. The HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) have created controllers that allow users to interact with the virtual objects.

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Interaction in VR opened our eyes to the real potential of VR. We now can be in CYBER SPACE! This means we can design imaginative worlds that are unbound to our physical world and hence opening a new medium for creativity, experiences, storytelling, and even creating productive spaces.

Now that I have regurgitated enough about the importance of presence in VR; let’s look at steps on building presence in your application and in assessing the level of presence.

The key importance on achieving presence in virtual reality are two main things:

  1. User representation (Player, hands, controllers, a cube, etc…)
  2. User Interaction (natural interactions)

User Representation

The hardest factor in presence is user representation. The reason behind this difficulty is how young the VR technology is. To properly represent users, we need to know many things. Like, where are there legs, elbows, knees, etc… Detecting every single joint and bone are important in accurately representing users in VR. The technology now is limited to tracking hands. We can assume where the elbows could be with inverse kinematics, but that’s a topic for another article. I was able to accurately represent users during my Masters. Unfortunately, the solution costs over 250K Euros.

User Interaction

Designing user interactions is not a new practice. However, with a new medium like VR, the way we should think of interaction should be different. VR allows us to use our bodies to move around, therefore it is intuitive for most users to walk around and look around, they don’t need a tutorial to tell them how to move the “player” like old days.

User experience in VR should be physical and it should be intuitive just like moving around a space in real life. User interactions could be generational (in other words, are different from a generation to another).

Let’s take the following example; we have an array of objects that we want to display. Let’s say 1300 different objects. Now let’s see what are the interactions we could use on flat applications (web apps, mobile apps, etc…).

  1. You can swipe the different objects
  2. You can scroll through the different objects
  3. You can use pagination for the different objects

Now let’s look at every single example. Why shouldn’t we swipe the different objects, this interaction seems logical. In fact a junior interaction/game designer will recommend this interaction. They would go as far as saying the user should swipe with their entire arm through the different objects. Of course it sounds like a familiar interaction for everyone however, here are the disadvantages of having such an interaction.

  • You are not utilizing the fact that you are in a virtual space and you can move around and you’re limiting the user to a 2D interaction.
  • Moving big muscles (big no no). When it comes to an interaction that you will be doing quite often within the experience it is best to avoid moving big muscles, these are shoulder muscles, back muscles, etc… You don’t want users to be physically fatigued while doing a simple interaction like browsing through your objects (products for example). The same disadvantages and rules will apply to the scrolling and the pagination.

So how should you design an interaction? Simply ask yourself a question, how do you do it in real life? Then, how can you make it better. In short: Believe you’re the Architect, and always think you are building The Matrix, humans can occupy and plugin to this new Cyber Space and the boundaries of the real world doesn’t exist.