A UX eye on Ready Player One

Anorak, the OASIS’s creator’s avatar — Warner Bros.

I’ve recently watched Ready Player One and amid all the spectacular action scenes and settings there were a few things which got me thinking. The film takes place in 2045 in a world where virtual reality is as common as smartphones are now. So someone had to imagine what UX for the Oasis (the virtual reality world) would look like in this near future.

Here’s what I found most interesting and how I think it might be a good idea (or not so much).

The good

Contextual Holograms

I-Rok reading a brief mid-conversation. — Warner Bros.

I’ll start with the low hanging fruit. In so many circumstances we see the players’ avatars interacting with menus or HUDs in the Oasis. These tend to be summoned with a simple gesture from the player or show up under certain circumstances, like running out of ammo.

This implies that the majority of the interface is kinetic, allowing players to interact directly with the world around them. Traditional graphics interfaces are shown as little as possible.

iPhone X gesture — Apple.com

This seems a natural evolution, the same way we are seeing more and more elements being removed from UI, especially in smartphones, and getting replaced with gestures.

The transparency we see might follow the same logic as it does with the VR goggles, as I talk about further down.

Gas money

Parzival getting ready to race — Warner Bros.

When things get destroyed or players ‘killed’ in the Oasis, they disappear into a shower of coins as opposed to debris or gore. Aside from useful for a 12A classification, this allows other players to take the loot for themselves.

In the race scene, we see Parzival (Wade’s avatar) opening his car door to scoop up coins from the road. As he does this, a coin gage hologram immediately pops up displaying how many coins he’s acquiring. As soon as the gage is full, Parzival then does a quick finger gesture from that hologram to the one displaying the gas in his tank, which fills up.

All of this takes about a second and is so effortless that the race doesn’t even slow down at all. The hologram is also down at seat level, so it doesn’t interfere with the driver’s vision. This implies the whole operation can be done without even looking, which tends to happen when you drive anyway.

Art3mis’s dress

Art3mis’s dress — @Gunter_Art3mis
Art3mis’s bell-bottoms- Fandom Wikia

In the club scene, which debatably doubles as a date scene, Sam’s avatar Art3mis shows up wearing this flowing red mermaid dress. As the film progresses and the dance starts we see them going from a more classical pair dance to creating a disco floor and doing their tribute to Saturday Night Fever.

At this point, without prompting, Artemis’s outfit changes to include bell-bottomed trousers and a higher back.

This transition is so smooth and is downplayed I wouldn’t be surprised if most moviegoers missed it. Yet disco dancing wouldn’t be possible in a mermaid dress, nor would trousers be right for the more intimate dancing.

This is a subtle and smooth transition that could be easy to miss. Yet disco dancing wouldn’t be possible in a mermaid dress since it requires a different kind of legwork. So the dress changes to a bell-bottomed pantsuit to allow for the dance style. When the style changes back, the outfit changes back to its default mermaid style.

The outfit adapts to the situation perfectly, without any apparent effort on the wearer’s part, allowing her to carry on having fun and dancing however she likes without having to worry about it.

This is exactly how I want my designs to behave.

Unreal by choice

In virtual reality, realism is an option — Warner Bros.

This is definitely my personal favourite. For most of the film, the scenes in the Oasis have a very video game feel to them, it’s not very realistic, the proportions of even the most anthropomorphic characters are a little off, the textures aren’t quite real. You always know you’re in a simulation.

However, a little way into the film, we start to see realistic scenes and even people within VR. These scenes, which I’m almost positive were filmed without CGI, imply that the technology is perfectly capable of rendering a completely realistic world. The image above is within the Oasis, and you can see an almost cartoony Parzival interacting with a quite realistic Halliday. This means Wade chose for his avatar Parzival to look like this.

It seems that within the film’s universe people have moved on from realism, much in the same way as we have moved from skeuomorphism to flat or flatish design.

The bad

Halliday Journals

A hall of holograms laid out like dioramas in a museum — Warner Bros.

When the main characters need to do some research, they head to the Halliday Journals which works like a museum or library. Here they can learn all they need about Halliday, watch his favourite films, play his favourite games or even watch holographic recreations of key moments in his life.

As nice as this looks on film, it wouldn’t be very practical to use. Imagine you had to move to a different computer every time you opened a result on a web search. I understand it looks good on screen and I’m being picky. But even in VR, you’re more likely to have things come to you than you going to them. Otherwise, we end up in a scenario like the what Community parodied a few years ago.

Running on the streets

Sam watches a group of people interacting in the Oasis — Warner bros.

The movie makes it a point to show people engaged in the Oasis as they appear in real life. Initially, you see people playing in their homes, or on treadmills, in safe environments.

However, closer to the end of the film we see people paying on the streets, running and flailing around. This would be incredibly dangerous. Any game system designed like his would injure, perhaps even kill its players far too easily. Just think back to what happened with Pokemon Go when it first came out.

As VR becomes more accessible and common, we must learn how to design experiences for it while always keeping the users safe. If we rely heavily on the physical motion as the system in the movie does, this task will be quite difficult.

Currently, we have main VR 2 systems with different approaches to this issue. The Vive is a fully immersive experience, with games that expect you to go on your knees to make your character duck behind cover in the game. This is the approach we see in the film and the one which results in most broken lamps in people’s home I’d wager. The other one is the Oculus which relies more heavily on traditional controllers. This means it doesn’t require you to move as much to use it.

Only time will tell what the VR systems will mature into. I believe a less motion reliant approach is the way forward, not only because of the safety concerns I mentioned earlier but also because people will take the path which requires the least effort from them.

The mixed

Anti-gravity dancing

The zero-g dance floor in the Distracted Sphere club — vie Steph S., Cinema Vine

So this is one of the coolest scenes in the film and was featured prominently in the trailers. This is the same club I mentioned earlier when I talked about Art3mis’s dress. The main feature is the zero-G dance floor in the centre of the building.

One of the issues which need solving when designing for VR is motion sickness, also known as VR Sickness. When what users see and what they physically experience with their bodies are very different, that confuses their sense of balance, resulting in motion sickness. It’s the same as what happens when you try to read a book in a moving car.

This issue would, I imagine, be made much worse with zero-G dancing, twirling around in darkness amidst flashing lights with people doing the same in all directions around you. Just have a look at the closest thing we have, Steve Aoki’s rave aboard the Vomit Comet (NASA’s Reduced-gravity flight). Though only weightless for short periods at a time, notice how people, even in a small space try to hold onto anything instead of dancing around.

Both the book and the film present the club as a spherical building (the “Distracted Sphere”). Aside from a cool gimmick, it could actually be a clever design feature. The shape would look the same all around from the inside, which should help to reduce the issue. This would follow some techniques used currently, such as Nasum Virtualis which consists on including a mostly imperceptible nose in the VR world to serve as a static reference point. We don’t notice that we can actually see our own noses usually because our brain edits it out on the fly.

Also, even in the film, they aren’t weightless for long, as Parzival creates a dance floor in midair. Art3mis then does the same, and both floors end up on the same plane, turning it into a dance scene like any other.

Transparent VR goggles

Semi-transparent VR goggles for getting into the Oasis — IGN

In the film, we are shown several shots of the VR goggles in use. The handful of different models we see all have this feature in common.

Spielberg uses this quite cleverly to show the characters emotions IRL (in real life) as they are playing. After all, the eyes are one of the most expressive features we have.

In the film, however, the wearer cannot see their surroundings, so it’s one-way transparency. This is probably a case of movie logic, but the idea of being able to control the transparency of a set of VR goggles is intriguing.

Though we never see this in the film, that feature would allow you to transition between the 2, even have picture-in-picture between the game and real life.

Or it could allow some transparency so you could play on the street, as I mentioned on the previous point.

TL;DR

This entire post is an overanalysis of UX shown in a soft Sci-fi film. Though these were intended to look believable and cool on the silver screen, it’s interesting to think about.