We at Normal VR have been working in VR for a while now, and have come to notice a pattern…
…people really enjoy watching other people humiliate themselves.
Well, yes, but not the problem we’re talking about today, which is: People keep running into physical walls when in virtual reality.
Clearly, it’s a problem. As VR developers, it’s our job to make experiences as immersive as possible. However, once the experience is immersive enough that people forget about their physical surroundings, we run into problems. Literally.
The solution is not to make things less immersive, but to improve the relationship between the virtual and physical worlds. Before we can tackle this problem, though, it’s important to understand why it’s happening:
Two parts of our brain are responsible for processing visual stimuli: the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious part is responsible for deliberate decision making. If those actions are repeated enough, however, they’re handed off to the subconscious. When learning to play a new sport, for example, dribbling a basketball might require full concentration. Over time, however, we develop muscle memory and delegate these actions to the subconscious—effectively allowing us to focus on other parts of the game.
It’s a good thing, really. Your subconscious steps in and tackles things like walking and breathing, all the while processing visual stimuli to help you navigate and avoid obstacles, enabling you to do fantastic feats like looking at your phone while walking. In virtual reality, however, these obstacles aren’t rendered at all and the boundaries that do exist are often too subtle for your subconscious to pick up. The result ends up being a jarring collision with reality.
We’ve seen Valve approach this problem through its Chaperone system in SteamVR. When you come close to the physical boundaries of your space, a grid of blue wireframe walls fade in to make you aware of your surroundings.
The Chaperone functions much like a sliding glass door. If your conscious brain is active, it recognizes the door. If the conscious brain gets distracted, however, it fails:
It’s sort of like an invisible fence, much like the ones used to keep dogs from running away. When we’re well within the fence, those physical boundaries are completely invisible. You might even forget they’re there altogether. But, much like our canine counterparts, crossing these boundaries can result in physical pain. While dogs get a zap from the shock collar, we might run into a wall, a desk, or unsuspecting roommate. And, just like our canine counterparts, these painful experiences train us to fear our boundaries and avoid crossing them. This fear keeps us from being able to completely relax and enjoy being in VR. Add teleportation and all bets are off.
So, what’s the solution? In games like Budget Cuts, we found ourselves teleporting relatively often, forcing us to pause and reorient ourselves each time. Almost every time, we’d take off the headset to find that we were in a completely different place than previously thought. We realized pretty quickly that the solution to our problem wasn’t to rely more on our conscious brain, but to create a system that enabled our subconscious to do the leg work. So, we created Deluxe Chaperone 3000, essentially mapping out all the objects in a space and placing them in our virtual environment, as well.
When all of the furniture and large objects are visible in VR, it not only keeps us from running into things, but that anxiety and fear around boundaries completely subsides. Without this anxiety, we feel comfortable spending longer periods of time in VR. Bonus: we’re able to use our real furniture! Rather than standing in the middle of an empty room, we can sit on the couch while talking to friends. Ultimately, we’re able to relax—free from the crippling fear of faceplants and embarrassing VR faux pas. Liberated to frolic freely, tethered only by our wired headset.
This applies to multiplayer VR, too. With Deluxe Chaperone 3000, you can sit across from your friends in VR, but on your own physical couches. With enough finesse, we can even line up your furniture so you can sit next to your friends. Sitting next to someone on a couch or across from a friend at a table are actions that we take for granted in the physical world, so translating this basic social element into VR is a good step towards creating comfortable virtual social spaces. 1
Headsets like the Hololens already map the physical world in real time. It’s fair to assume that the Vive will eventually include a depth camera that functions similarly. While showing real physical space in VR is obviously an important step, we can go much further. When designing your experiences, you should take furniture into account when building out your environment. Rather than having these two contrasting objects in the same space, you can use them to your advantage by creating tactile obstacles and objects in their place.
Blending the virtual and physical worlds does so much more than simply solve a problem, it provides a new realm of possibilities for both the user and the developer. It enables us to turn obstacles into advantages to create more immersive worlds and better experiences.
Virtual Reality should be a place that lets you go beyond your own reality, whether sitting on a couch with a friend thousands of miles away or trying your hand as a gourmet chef. You shouldn’t have to live in fear of crashing into walls, tripping over coffee tables, or just falling on your face. So, we’re designing apps with this in mind. We think others should be, too.
Thanks for listening to this extended thought, and expect more to come in this space.
Here’s to breaking down walls (but, not like real ones),
Also published on Medium.