After creating an interactive 360 virtual reality (VR) news experience, being director of photography on a short VR documentary and spending more than 18 months immersed in the medium, I wanted to bring users into a new realm by connecting them in a social VR space.
Social VR essentially brings two or more users in the same virtual world where they can interact.
I chose to create a social VR experience from my most recent 360 documentary Above View Below because VR can be a solitary journey; you are often by yourself and always cut off from the physical world. I wanted the ability to simultaneously share my experiences with others and interact with them.
The goal was to create a mobile application allowing multiple users to simultaneously connect and share a 360 video experience. Within it, one user would control the pace of the viewing and all users would be able to interact through voice communication.
The results are pretty cool but the challenges leading up to them proved more difficult than I expected. Here is what we learnt.
Lesson #1: User testing, even if limited, is a must from the beginning.
Being unsure of how I needed to shape the social VR experience, I did user testing from the conception phase on. It was very basic testing: Users wore Gear VRs and pushed the play button at the same time. It was explained that they were having a shared experience and were encouraged to communicate with each other during their experience. The results of three rounds were telling and allowed the development of a more effective prototype .
Lesson #2: Visual representation of the users is necessary
To make a shared experience feel real, users have to know the others are in the space with them. Having visual representations of the users, such as arrows, situates users with the space and makes the sharing concrete.
Formalizing the shared experience by giving users a moment to fully understand they are in it together is ideally done at the very beginning.
Inside the Above View Below Social VR app. Session leaders control the pace of the experience. Arrows representing the users point towards what part of the scene a they are looking at.
Lesson #3: Task your Users
Create interactive elements that give the shared experience meaning.
Users need to come into relation with one another to make the shared experience rewarding and a certain degree of user agency is needed for this.
This translates as having the ability to start and stop the experience, interact with elements within the virtual world, having visual catalysts to trigger conversation among users, having narrative triggers to entice the users to look somewhere or do something, and creating game like moments necessitating the participation of all users (gameification).
Users test a beta version of a mobile application of the 360 VR documentary Above View Below which allows multiple users to simultaneously connect and share a 360 video experience. Within it, one user controls the pace of the viewing and all users are able to interact through voice communication.
The development lessons:
“it is a niche application on a new niche platform”
Eric and Rodrigo are the brains behind the application. They made the idea of 360 video social VR come to life and allowed me to see the power of putting multiple users in the same experience. I gave them a long wish list for the app (user representation, user control, voice connection…) and limited time. It was a summer project that we juggled on top of our jobs and regular lives.
Rodrigo had some Unity experience from his game developing initiatives and Eric had solid coding experience even if none with Unity.
Their skills complemented each other: Rodrigo took care of the front end of the app (UI and Unity build) while Eric developed the backend networking pipelines.
Lesson #4: VR takes more time than you might expect, push back your deadlines
It was a first VR build for both Eric and Rodrigo and one of the biggest challenges they faced was the lack of resources and support online. Eric explains that because “it is a niche application on a new niche platform” help is scattered on the web and hidden deep in sometimes old forum post.
Eric suggests t0 check other people’s projects, it is an easy way to understand both Unity and VR. Rodrigo adds because it is a new medium and it’s going to be frustrating, give yourself time and push back your deadlines.
Lesson #5: Test, Test, Test
Rodrigo discovered that VR platforms are not as homogenous as you would think, some things that work on Oculus won’t work on Gear VR and Google Cardboard, so you need to constantly test your application to see if your build actually works.
You might feel almost done only to notice small bugs or find out your version works on Oculus Rift but not on the Samsung Gear VR. Test constantly.
Creativity and good communication between team members was essential to making our project successful. This was mostly uncharted territory for all of us and proved to be a great learning opportunity.
User testing was immensely important to understanding what elements are needed to make the social space compelling and engaging for users. I learnt the hard way that novelty quickly becomes boredom when users do not feel engaged.
Some advice from both developers: The devil is in the details. It’s really easy to mess up the feel of a VR app, resulting in an unpleasant experience for the user.
About the documentary Above View Below
The topic of Above View Below is urban exploration. The feelings of excitement and exhilaration that come with exploring seem heightened when you do it with others.
The immensely talented Instagrammer @elusive.mind was generous enough to take me to some of the most impressive places in Toronto, Canada as well as answer all of my questions about urban exploring. Her answers create a compelling narrative for the short film.