Lost in Synthetic Land — How We Helped Our Participants Find Each Other in a Social VR Experience

We created a shared VR experience — “In Memoriam” — by teaching ourselves how to get the most out of our user research.

Meeting each other in “In Memoriam”, a shared VR experience for two people

Failed empathy machine or virtual escapism? As virtual reality becomes more commercially widespread, critiques are never-ending. Inkoo Kang, a writer in Slate’s culture department, says in her article, “…the idea that spending 10 or 15 minutes in virtual reality can dramatically realign a viewer’s sympathies is a delusion”. An article by Monica Kim from The Atlantic sees VR as a way to escape into a better reality online. Kim writes: “Researchers believe new immersive technology could lead to isolation, but maybe when social needs are met online, people won’t need in-person interaction as much.”

As recent graduates from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, we are familiar with these criticisms. When we set out to make our first VR project, we started with questions in mind. Is it possible to create a VR experience that connects people instead of isolating them? How do we use VR to encourage in-person communications? How do we keep participants engaged while delivering a meaningful message at the same time? Can we use a virtual environment to raise awareness about our environment on earth?

With the help of our mentor and Superbright founder, Igal Nassima, we developed a multi-user, social VR experience for two people to experience at the same time, an artificial landscape in a speculative future built in memoriam of the nature on our planet.

Our project, “In Memoriam”, is an open-ended experience that presents a future in which nature is preserved in synthetic monuments. Two participants enter a surreal world of tree-like structures, open water, and sounds from the past. Entering at two different locations in the landscape, we task guests to observe and describe to each other what they see and hear while exploring the artificial forest. The hidden goal of the experience is for the two to find each other in the VR space through verbal communication.

Sights and sounds from “In Memoriam”

Because our project and its goal depend so much on human-to-human interaction, we wanted to ensure an experience during which our participants could have enjoyable, effective conversations. User testing was essential to our process.

Inspired by the work of game developers, John Sharp and Colleen Macklin, authors of Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design, we created a guide for ourselves to thoughtfully track our technical notes, prototype descriptions, user testing observations, and evaluative insights to work efficiently and reflectively plan new versions of our project. Our user research emerged as an integral part of our process, often revealing narrative gaps and leading us to consider new storytelling directions.

Our user testing sessions depended on functioning equipment, and we quickly learned, through trial and error, to budget our time and prepare our resources accordingly. The first part of our guide addresses some of our project’s technical aspects before covering considerations for interacting with our guests. We’re sharing a condensed version of all it here to open source our process and to learn much more from those more experienced than us. We welcome your feedback, comments, and tips!

A view from inside “In Memoriam”

Part 1: Technical Checklists

Though we ask our guests to strap on headsets and hand controllers to navigate a virtual space, we want them to think as little about the technology as possible and instead focus on their experience in the new environment. This means creating a technically-stable setup with as few glitches as possible. Key to our process was developing an understanding of our tools, documenting our setup steps, and recording how we solved any problems.

“In Memoriam” was built for two participants to each wear an Oculus Rift headset and to use two touch controllers. Movement in the real world with these devices is tracked and translated into the virtual world by Oculus Sensors that are connected to computers. Because there are two people, we need a computer for each Oculus rig. Well before we see our guests, our first step is to attach everything and calibrate the equipment for our IRL (in-real-life) space. Early on, we wrote ourselves a list of steps to follow so we would not have to re-learn them every time. Now that we have had plenty of practice, we know what issues to anticipate (e.g. where are the electrical outlets? are the sensors spaced properly? are the touch controllers low on batteries? do we have enough USB ports and are they functioning properly?). Each venue location is different, of course, and the sooner we can set up in a new space, the better. Most important, we have a general idea of how long this part generally takes us.

With so many pieces of hardware, we wrote a handy inventory list to help us remember everything, including backup cables, extension cords, batteries, and zip ties. We keep this record in the same file with our hardware setup steps and software-related notes.

Our project relies on three programs running simultaneously: Oculus, SteamVR, and Unity. Without diving into the nitty-gritty details, we have noted which settings to check within each to ensure they all play nice together. Tracking software versions is also key, and without consistency across the two computers, our project quickly throws errors. Sometimes updates are unavoidable and even desired, but ideally, we’re not dealing with these — and any unexpected results they might bring — on days we show our piece. Our takeaway: pin down versions of all your software applications and try to maintain them as long as possible to save yourself headaches.

We also noted the name of our current project file, the names, locations of our backup files, and any accounts’ credentials. Just as we did for the hardware setup, we created a detailed checklist for running and testing our project, again noting how long of a process to expect.

We created this reference document to streamline our multifaceted technical setup and to get to the multi-user fun faster. Because what’s a social virtual reality experience if you can’t share it with others?

Two of our guests looking for each other “In Memoriam”

Part 2: Participant Sessions

Designing for worthwhile multi-user engagement is challenging yet rewarding work. For us, telling a story in VR means recognizing that the story actually starts in the non-digital world. For “In Memoriam”, the onboarding experience includes a short introduction to the “mission” — to explore a mysterious site as a team of two — and instructions on how to use the headsets and controllers. We value this onboarding as much as what occurs in the virtual, and so we considered how to design interactions for both in the service of the entire narrative experience.

Our goals were simple — to set the users in a relaxed mood so they could take their time to explore; to imply that they would be able to find each other without telling them explicitly; to equip them with the technical knowledge so they could feel at ease with the headsets and controllers. There were many factors to consider, and we realized early on that we needed a system to thoughtfully chart our ideas and project’s iterations based on all the feedback.

For each user test, we recorded information such as:

Context of Experience

  • What is the venue and what expectations might guests bring with them to such a location?
  • Who are our guests? What is their relationship to one another? Are they friends or did they just meet? Have they experienced VR or is this their first time?

Prototype Description

  • How have we designed the staging area to connect to themes in our project?
  • What instructions do guests receive as they are guided into the experience? How are they assisted with the equipment? If participants are new to VR, then what is important for them to understand?
  • What are our guests’ expectations upon entering into the virtual world? Do they have specific objectives? Are these provided to them beforehand or are they expected to discover their agenda(s) as part of the experience?
  • What does the virtual environment look like and how does it sound? What are the ways in which guests might interact with it and with each other?
  • How will guests know when the experience has ended? How will they be guided out of the virtual and back into the physical world?

Design Questions

  • What are we testing with this particular prototype and how are we attempting to do so?
  • Are we testing new content? Have we made major changes to the visual design, auditory features, or interactive components within the virtual environment?
  • Are we testing a new script to greet users or to welcome them back to from their virtual journey?

Participant Comments

  • What kinds of questions are our guests asking us throughout each stage of the experience? How are our participants communicating with one another?
  • Are our users getting stuck with the equipment or with any elements inside of the virtual world?
  • How are they resolving problems, both those intentionally-designed and otherwise?
  • What do they notice about the virtual environment first and what are their remarks at the conclusion of the experience?

Observations

  • How long does it take our guests to move through the experience?
  • Where are they looking and if relevant, to where are they navigating?
  • If expected, are our participants working together? What strategies emerge?
  • What appears to feel easy, challenging, or confusing to our participants? And do these assumptions match with what they report?

Ideas & Next Steps

  • Have we answered our original questions for this particular prototype?
  • Have we learned anything unexpected about our project?
  • Are there any patterns in our guests’ remarks, questions, or in how they are interacting with one another?
  • Are we moving closer or farther away from our project’s original goals?
  • Reflecting on everything that happened, what is the most important question to ask in our next iteration?

With routine user testing sessions, patterns in our guests’ comments and behaviors surfaced. We recognized these as opportunities to enhance or diminish particular aspects of the experience depending on our goals. And with those opportunities, we started to build momentum and to develop deliberate project iterations. We knew that we were headed in the right direction when we stopped hearing repeat questions and when we noticed similar reactions to the same narrative moments. For example, many first-time VR users were not sure if and how they could move in physical space while wearing headsets. We solved this issue by setting up designated zones IRL with glowing tape, so participants, walking into our space, could get a sense that their room for movement was limited. We also added to the onboarding instructions and made sure our participants knew they could physically turn their bodies around to see behind them.

Designated zones for guests to experience “In Memoriam”

Another example relates to our hidden goal. In early user tests, we told our guests that they could find each other by describing the sounds and visuals. Later we were surprised to find that most people would naturally want to find each other even without us telling them. One participant said: “It just seems intuitive to want to see the other person. We’re a team, and the only two humans in a seemingly post-human world.” We decided to leave the explicit instruction out of the onboarding script and let people discover the hidden goal in the process of exploration. This discovery, rather than being told what to do, proved to be a lot more natural and emotional, adding to the beauty and memorability of our project.


We learned a great deal about our project from our guests’ feedback, especially when they encountered unforeseen situations. If anything, we understood the value of remaining open to what these surprises could teach us about our project and help us see where we would like to take it. We believe that social VR is all about connection. We made “In Memoriam” in the hopes of generating meaningful interactions between participants, while prompting them to connect more to the natural world. We created this user research guide to better connect with our users, while hoping it can help us connect to other social VR creators who may find this guide useful for their projects.

“In Memoriam” was developed with support from ITP’s xStory: Experiments in Storytelling. Many thanks to Igal Nassima and our xStory mentors, Lisa Jamhoury, Or Fleisher, Dror Ayalon, and Dan O’Sullivan.

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