I recently returned from a family visit to Washington D.C.. Having finally gotten to spend some time with a HTC VIVE setup, I gained some new insights into how Virtual Reality systems work in social settings. Oddly enough, as we fly forward into a new world of technology, we have to tap into our childhood roots in order to play socially.
Regarding virtual reality, there’s a few standard situations in which people interact:
- as one in a group of separate VR users.
- as sole VR user (accompanied by bystanders).
- and, through online VR play.
To start, let’s go through a brief overview of a setup needed for using a VIVE (and some notes about my brother-in-law’s tech’d-out accessories).
- First, you need the basic headset with tethering cord. (This is the part that would likely fuse to your brainstem in a made-for-TV sci-fi movie.)
- Only recently has VIVE come out with a headset that included ear pieces, so a large earphones were also required for any audio components. (Sure! Add another cord! I can’t see where I’m walking anyway, so what’s one more trip hazard?)
- Two base stations (also known as lighthouses) are a minimum for room-scale VR and tracking. These were mounted to walls at a near-ceiling level.
- Two controllers are also necessary for most operations, as they mimic your hands within a great deal of the VIVE’s operations.
- A VR-ready PC is a must. An average gamer would likely have a setup sufficient to run a VIVE, complete with added cooling systems.
- A square-ish room for free roaming. (And very few breakables for the gravity-challenged individuals such as myself.)
- For specific types of applications, my brother-in-law, Adam, has also built a contraption complete with a car seat and foot pedals. It folds and adjusts for height. (I’m only now realizing I didn’t get a photo of this. Sad, since his sim-pit is a true gaming sight to behold!)
None of these items are terribly unusual considering the current, and common, VR usability requirements.
A Group of Anti-Social VR Users
In group settings, where multiple VR stations are setup for people to use simultaneously, interaction among people is nearly non-existent. When I visited South by Southwest, many areas showed this type of a setup.
From the standpoint of trying to give everyone a chance to view the same material, this is the most efficient VR method. However, it also eliminates any sort of outside interaction.
A throwback to The Mumny VR Experience at SXSW. Everyone watched the same video simultaneously, but you couldn’t even hear each other’s laughter.
To be clear, I do not mean “outside” in the sense of “outside of VR.” I mean that in these controlled environments there is no interaction within the headset/VR world, either. This is the most passive way to experience VR. You cannot speak to the person next to you, as they are also consumed by what they’re seeing and hearing. You cannot speak to anyone inside the headset, as that construct does not yet exist for situations such as these. This is true parallel play, and requires no more social skills than that of a toddler’s.
The only people interacting, here, are the ones not inside VR.
For those of you who didn’t grow up with a mother going after a master’s degree in psychology (and endlessly trying to evaluate your psyche at the dinner table), parallel play is one of the first steps as young children learn social behaviors. Typically, in early childhood, kids play next to each other without influencing each other’s behavior. Interaction is either minimal or non-existent.
Back to D.C., shall we?
With the chair contraption neatly tucked away, out of the base stations’ view, my brother-in-law, Adam allowed me to be the first to try the system for the night. As the headset was plastered forcefully onto my face, Adam jokingly called me a VR virgin. “Hardly!” I exclaimed back toward a wall where my headset blindness had convinced me he’d be.
I’d find out all too soon how right he was when it came to the VIVE. While I’ve used quite a few setups, I’d never been able to use a VIVE with this much freedom. There was no ultimate goal (such as finding a way to run a 360 clip), no salesperson talking to me the whole time, and no strangers huddled together all using these to see the same pre-recorded video I was also viewing.
VR virgin? Still a no. VIVE virgin? Turns out I really was one. The controls were different. The navigation was different. The introductory how-tos were different. Everything was drastically different than any other setup I’d previously encountered. There are some very serious implications among VR and AR in this realm, but we’ll save that for another day.
The Sole User (with Bystanders)
So, here I am in Adam’s home office strapped into VR and standing in the middle of what was, for all intents and purposes, an empty room. To ensure the live-in pup, Marvin (a cute, cuddly mutt with floppy ears and a lazy eye), wouldn’t trip me or tangle cords, my sister, Rikki, sat guard at the door while holding his collar. Adam supervised me closely at first, but he, too, had to move to a chair just outside of the room in order to give me enough free space to move about. Finally, (this was a family event, after all) my dad also pulled a chair up to join the now huddled, doorway family.
I spent some time exploring the new entertainment. I went through a tutorial where I got to throw a stick to a robotic, one-eyed slug-dog-thing while standing atop a cliffside. Despite my efforts, I could not get robo-slog to leap off the cliff after a “poorly thrown” stick. (My dad worked on this more later, and it is, indeed, possible. Don’t worry, robo-slog comes back safe, squirmy, and ready for belly rubs.)
Photo courtesy of gamecrate.com. I definitely didn’t create this, though my creation made people physically sick, so chalk that up as one for me!
Next, I got to experience Tilt Brush by Google. I could see myself spending a great many hours in this app in the furute—I am a designer, after all. For those not in the know, this is an app where you can determine colors and types of paint brushes to use in a 360 degree space. Instead of using perspective on a 2D grid to make something look three dimensional, you are actually drawing in three dimensional space! You can draw a line, and walk around it. I chose to make a really quick and thrown-together pyramid. Experimenting with all of the entertaining brushes (snow, fire, electricity, rainbow, etc.), I was able to create something truly nauseating. No joke, I was “standing inside” my 3D marvel, and the movement made my stomach churn.
It was only at this point, the moment when I’d made myself so physically sick in this amazing virtual world, that I finally took the headset off. Without telling my family why, I asked who wanted to view my masterpiece from the inside. “We’ve been watching you on the screen,” my sister said. It was a kind attempt to say no, but I insisted she give it a try.
This might be the very moment when my face shows the sudden onset of nausea.
Sitting in the seat my sister once occupied, I noticed how inherently social we are as humans. Social and… kind of stupid. My family was trying to make non-social entertainment a group effort.
With Rikki in the simulator, I now see what she’d been viewing on the computer monitor. A small (in comparison to the 360 degree version) and rather poor representation of what I’d been interacting with inside the VR. Three of us sat, trying to hold a conversation while also watching Rikki nauseate herself inside my sickening pyramid. From time to time, one of us would say something to her. Inside VR, with the earphones on, it’s hard to hear everything being said, so any, “whatcha doin’ now?” questions or comments come off as a sad and desperate attempt to interact with someone who’s attentions are 100% somewhere else.
Next, we stuck my dad inside the pyramid. I don’t know that it sickened him, but it bored him a great deal. He went on to Google Earth rather quickly. There, you can zoom in or out of anywhere on the globe and explore locations. In another desperate attempt, the rest of us kept trying to get him to talk about what he was doing so we might feel part of the action. I don’t really know what we were expecting. Maybe some sort of Mark Twain-style narration?
I, starting to realize I could interact at the same level without sitting in the doorway, opted to move just two feet away in order to play some Mario Party and wait for my next turn.
I WAS Luigi, but I still lost.
I was next into Google Earth, and I did what I expect most people do: I went to explore places I already knew. Go to the see the Eiffel Tower? Nah, let’s see where I live! Then, since I’m on vacation, why don’t I take a walk byGlensheen where I work. This was actually pretty cool. I got to walk down paths I knew very well, but the world is one reminiscent of Minecraft. And, since Google Earth is getting their imagery from a variety of off-site sources, some details were a bit off. For example, I had to walk straight through a boulder to get from the Carriage House to Lake Superior.
Despite this, I must have been having fun. The family insisted on snapping a photo of me with Google Earth Glensheen in the background. I even tried posing for the camera, though it took a few tries for them to get me looking in the right direction.
It’s hard to make out any recognizable Glensheen attributes on the monitor behind me. Adam apologized for the poor monitor image in the background, but I didn’t care too much, as I was enjoying the time inside VR. Besides, they knew I’d probably use these photos in a blog and were doing me a favor by snapping them. The quality, whether they’d been good or bad images, wasn’t ever an issue. It was the interaction among each other we were going for, and the truth is this:
When acting as a VR bystander, your whole purpose in life, at that moment, is to find a way to interact in a world where you cannot be—to find a way to connect on a level that isn’t available.
After Google Earth, I went on to try Audioshield. Best compared to Guitar Hero, I can honestly say this is how I’d like to experience all of my music all of the time. I won’t go into further detail about how great this was, as many others have done so better than I can in a few short sentences. My favorite review is titled “This virtual reality game lets you punch your music in the face,” and can be found here.
This was about the time when all bystanders gave up on trying to interact. Since Audioshield, more so than the previous apps we’d tried, takes up all of the user’s attention and faculties, no outside conversations are possible. I believe this was why our doorway family began to disperse. Rikki took a turn on the game, and then she and I hunkered down on the couch to let my dad and Adam set up the full sim pit.
It is important to note: though I am currently critiquing the limitations of group interactions when it comes to VR, I think this experience is a great testament to humans and my amazing family. We gathered like excited children to wait for our turns on this technology marvel. Adam seemed just as excited to give us these new experiences—patiently walking my dad and me through navigation. Rikki, though I’m sure she’s seen this same scenario a variety of times in her home, also got excited to sit and watch. While they opened their home and tech to us, and as I was noticing how we were trying to find some unconventional ways to interact among each other, I also realized I wouldn’t have had as much fun inside the VR had I not known my stumbles and odd movements were providing a source of entertainment for others. Having the group there for the duration of play did enhance the experience for the better!
Online VR Play
As with many online games, VR also allows you to interact with other players via the internet. The difference here, as it seems, is that the world becomes so fluid, so immersive, that the other users are slightly less “real.”
I got to hear Adam explain a lot of this as I started yelling at my computer generated Mario Party opponents. Though I was in the next room as he walked my dad through flying a plane with the sim pit, I could hear well and knew I wasn’t visually missing anything.
My dad, a pilot for more than forty years, was excited to get a chance at virtual flying. He’d been in simulators many times before—for the purposes of getting certified in certain aircraft — but VR is different. These applications allow the user to explore without knowing there will be a catastrophic malfunction from which the pilot needs to recover (a common training technique in aircraft simulators). Here, he can explore his surroundings, and in games, he can enter war-like scenarios where a person fights the enemy planes who are also real people in the same VR, interactive environments.
In one such instance, as Adam regaled, he’d been playing for a significant period of time when a particular plane caught his attention. As opposed to many standard online games, this one did not provide him the means or opportunity to interact with that individual. While I didn’t ask for details, it was clear there was no way to speak to the person in a conventional gaming sense. You can’t type a message on the keyboard (it’s not convenient so it’s not necessarily an option), you can’t speak verbally to your team mates (no microphones), and there’s no running list of who’s playing (it would impede the line of sight).
The next day, at work, Adam discovered the previous day’s plane/pilot had been his coworker. All that time, they’d been in the same game playing together, but neither knew who the other was. This gave them an opportunity to discuss the game and have a conversation that would not have happened otherwise, but speaking about an experience after the fact, even when both parties were present for the activities, is not as authentic as having those conversations during gameplay. Going forward, there may be instances where they could recognize each other, but communication is still restricted due to current online VR capabilities.
Sure, there’s likely some online VR games giving better communication options across sets of players, but it’s not currently the standard. Instead, whether we know the others or not, we are restricted to a silent type of play. Parallel play indicates we do not influence others’, but in a war-time games, the goal is exactly the opposite—you want to attack the other players. If basic communications aren’t available, and we do not know who it is we play against, true interaction cannot exist and does nothing more for our social requirements than would a computer.
VR, in its current form, is one of the least social and most isolating entertainment options in existence. For it to survive long term, though, this must change. As evidenced by our need to interact as bystanders—in that desperate yet slightly humiliating way—most humans want to spend their time socializing with others. Sometimes this means just sitting near another person. Other times, this is lengthy debates over current events. Regardless, when one person is experiencing something the others “can’t,” our natural reaction is to find a way to be involved.
In VR, we’ve discovered a few solutions—all throwbacks to parallel play. But, as we outgrew and evolved past this toddler tendency, so must VR if it’s going to stick with us for decades to come.
One last thanks must go out to Rikki and Adam (and Marvin) for unending entertainment and great hospitality. I should probably also extend an added “thanks” for them tolerating me while I gravitated toward VR/AR displays at museums and snapped photos for future use. You’re guys are awesome!