A Solitary Adventure? Designing for Isolation in VR

Why isolation is good for both content creators and users.

Combating solitary engagement while maintaining isolation

One of the more common criticisms of immersive media is that they isolate the user from the world around them, thus making for an inherently solitary experience.

The argument typically goes something along the lines of: “look at them, they strap the headset on and they’re dead to the world,” or “does anyone really want to have a bunch of friends over and proceed to sit around in individual headsets where you can’t see one another?” This is especially salient when discussing immersive cinema and 360º video.

Given the low level of autonomy present, the Head Mounted Display (HMD) critics argue that it’s as if you were to go to a theater, except you’re wearing a headset to block yourself from the people around you. With VR, the critics might be a bit less critical, though the refrain typically centers on the idea of individual vs. group experiences (with the former being negative and the later being positive).

I’ll admit that early in my studies, I also felt that the isolating aspect of HMD based immersive media was a negative; however, as I’ve looked deeper into the nature of the media, I’ve realized that the isolation is actually a positive both for the user and for the content creator.

Why Isolation is Good for Both Content Creators and Users

Though the field of experience design has increased its reach into areas of industrial design, product design, retail engagement, and immersive media, many experience designers are focused on designing 2D experiences for digital screens. What this means is that the designer is creating a product that is constantly fighting for the attention of the user. Unless the user chooses to maximize a given window, the program/product will be competing for the attention of any number of other programs/products on the user’s desktop. Email notifications, messages, and other browser tabs will constantly be beckoning a user away from the experience that has been so carefully crafted for them. While it is true that most head mounted displays allow the user to configure for the reception of notifications while in an experience, it is generally the case that the content itself takes precedence. Often due to hardware constraints, it is currently difficult to multi-task in a head mounted display. Thus, the user is focused solely on the designer’s experience, meaning that the intended message/experience is more likely to translate correctly to the user.

Perhaps the more important consideration, however, is the world that is happening around a user’s workspace, and the distractions that it presents. Content currently exists in a (typically) 16x9 aspect ratio screen, and everything outside of that screen offers the potential for distraction, so that even if he or she is using a maximized view that focuses on a specific product, there are things constantly fighting for their attention. Perhaps they are watching TV while typing, listening to a coworker at another desk while reading the news, or having to periodically check an oven to make sure that dinner hasn’t overcooked. All of these distractions act to dilute and confuse the message/experience of engaging with content. Conversely, when a user is isolated in a head mounted display, he or she is blocking out the world around them. They become completely engaged in that content that they are presented with, thus allowing for a heightened level of immersion. This increased immersion and undivided attention leads to…

Why Isolation is Good for Branded Content and Marketing Messages (With a Caveat)

Given what I’ve outlined above, it’s easy to see why the isolation provided by head mounted displays is appealing to marketers. It is very rare that a marketer has the opportunity to capitalize on a viewer’s undivided attention. The isolation provided by head mounted displays allows for brands to force a user to participate with their messaging and content. However, having a user’s undivided attention can be a double edged sword. As Uncle Ben reminds us: “with great power comes great responsibility.” If you force a user to participate with content and there’s no possibility for distraction, there’s no room for error. Just as isolation can provide a greater, more immersive experience for a user, any content that he or she feels is forced and/or unpleasurable will lead to a magnification of negative brand associations. Therefore, it is imperative that brands focus on providing meaningful, value-added content for a user.

In the realm of immersive cinema, it’s important that brands not resort to using the equivalent of pre-roll. You aren’t adding value to the user’s experience if you’re forcing them to sit through something that they aren’t looking for. Therefore, it’s important to make any branded content content that is actually worth engaging with in and of itself. For VR, the same applies, though you have the opportunity to include product placements within the experience. For example, imagine an entertainment experience where you need to virtually bake a cake, and all of the equipment that you interact with is sponsored by Kitchen Aid. Because the user in so invested in the experience, they are likely to draw distinct connections to the branded product placements in ways that they would not in traditional non-immersive media.

Combating Solitary Engagement While Maintaining Isolation

So, if isolation has its positives, what about the knock on the solitary nature of using head mounted displays? Here are several examples where users benefit from the isolating nature of HMDs, while still participating in a social and enjoyable experience:

Example One: Rec Room

Against Gravity’s “Rec Room”

Against Gravity, a small VR startup from Seattle, released “Rec Room” this past June, which CNET is calling the first killer app for VR. Rec Room is a social VR experience where a user can have real-time, live interactions with other participants from around the world as you all play a variety of cooperative games such as paintball, dodgeball, and charades. As the world is constructed, isolation is a necessity in order for the user to feel intrinsically involved in the action around them. However, due to the participatory and social nature, the experience never feels isolating. If anything, the user can feel as though he or she is having real, enjoyable, and meaningful interactions with the other participants. While it isn’t the only socially linked, multiplayer VR experience currently available, it’s hands-down one of the best.

Example Two: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Steele Crate’s “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”

With “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes,” Ontario based Steel Crate Games has developed a game that perfectly demonstrates both how isolation can be a positive, and how an isolating experience can be communal. The premise of the game is simple: one person is disarming a bomb while the rest of the room is guiding them through the process. The mechanics involve placing the “disarmer” into a VR headset where he or she has control over the bomb. While turning and manipulating the bomb, the disarmer is able to look at and interact with all of its sides. Each side shows some combination of panels involving a series of puzzles. The disarmer must speak to what he or she sees while the rest of the room attempts to find the puzzle solutions in a large manual and guide the disarmer through the disarming protocol. If the team succeeds in disarming the bomb in time, everyone wins.

It’s important to note that there are versions of the game where the disarmer is controlling a bomb on a TV rather than through a VR headset. Even in this version, he or she must maintain isolation from the rest of the group, lest the dynamics of the experience be compromised. Yet, if everyone is sitting in the same room, it becomes difficult to hide the bomb from the manual team, and it’s easy for the diffuser to see hand gestures and facial reactions of the manual team. It is through the isolation of the head mounted display that the experience is actually at its best, as both the diffuser and the manual team can feel together, working collaboratively, while still maintaining the appropriate amount of separation.

When Isolation is a Negative

While I am arguing here that the isolation afforded by head mounted displays is a positive aspect of the medium in many regards, I would be remiss to think that it is always a positive. Certainly, there are times where an experience is far better in a 2D space. This, however, is where it becomes about understanding the specific affordances and constraints of various media, and knowing when to design for a specific medium, such as one viewed on an HMD.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, is the consideration of safety. Many lower-end HMDs do not offer any form of chaperone system. Therefore, there are safety considerations for both their own well being, and the safety and protection of people and belongings in the immediate vicinity. While it can be very difficult to dictate how a consumer might use a head mounted display in their own home, we can certainly be aware of how a user might engage with a curated experience in a retail/sponsored engagement setting. With this in mind, it is important for the immersive experience designer to factor in not only the experience itself, but also the physical space in which the experience is engaged with. This is particularly important with room-scale experiences such as those created for the HTC Vive. With these, it is imperative that aspects of safety and immersion are factored into the space design, in addition to any aesthetic considerations to heighten the overall presentation.