Design Observations in VR Experiences

This year's Game Developers Conference will go down in history as the year virtual reality took over the conference. From the wait lines exceeding two hours, to the mad scramble to get into the VR sessions, the undisputed truth is that VR is going to be a game changer. And even though this technology has been around for 30 years, the recent accessibility to it has allowed developers to experiment and present a wide range of experiences. My recent trip to GDC sparked some ideas of best practices with this new presentation tool.

Spacial Navigation and Room Design Are Key

Well thought out navigation is critical in providing an experience that feels good. In I Expect You To Die by Schell Games, the user is placed in a sitting position with head tracking. The user can lean forward to “reach” for objects and interact with the environment to solve puzzles. The environment is configured so the user interaction area is within virtual arms length. Schell Games successfully removed the need to move around the virtual space by limiting the size of the environment. They also provided a telekinesis superpower to the user so they could extend their virtual body into the space. It is important to consider how the user will interact with the environment.

Trials on Tatooine by ILM is a standing experience were the HTC vive tracks your position as you both physically and virtually allowing the user walk around a 10’x10’ space. The experience starts off with the Millennium Falcon practically landing on your head, during which time you can walk around the landing area. The experience ends with the user dodging and ducking behind crates, avoiding Storm Trooper blaster fire. The ability to walk around and interact with the environment felt very natural. Room scale VR is going be a powerful addition in reinforcing presence in a virtual world.

It is important to consider how the user will interact with the environment.

The most interesting navigation pattern came from Wayward Sky from Uber Entertainment. Their approach puts the user in the roll of a giant, akin to a real time strategy game. This gave the user a bird’s eye view of the environment, directing the character through the environment by casting a ray and selecting a point to move the character. There were special points of interest that triggered a fadeout cut to the perspective of the character where you would solve mini puzzles. The shared context of seeing the environment from the giant view—and the first person view—provided a unique insight to the world.

New Experiences Means New Ways of Thinking

Virtual reality challenges established menu design patterns. It is not sufficient to place a standard web layout in a virtual space and expect it to be an effective interaction modality. Owlchemy Labs took an interesting approach in Job Simulator where they replace standard menus with environmental interactions. For example, to select a level, the user picks up a virtual cartridge and plugs it into a player which launches the level. In Fantastic Contraptions by Northway Games, a virtual helmet augments your world to reveal menu elements which are represented by mini models of contraption “levels” that the user picks up and places on a pedestal to select. It’s interesting to see the community revert to the influences of Skeuomorphism while users are educated to this new way of interacting in virtual worlds. This seems to parallels Apple’s approach to educate the public in interactions with multi-touch and gesture enabled devices.

It was encouraging to see the various groups tackle the challenges with creating virtual reality experiences. And while it may not be clear what design patterns will stick for these experiences, it's clear VR is already having a huge impact in the digital space.

Header image source: Mark Zuckerberg