Why AltspaceVR will FAIL— Virtual Reality User Experience Teardown
This story is part of a series where I tear down the onboarding and overall user experience of Virtual Reality games and experiences. I do this because I want designers and developers to build truly immersive experiences, and I hope these tear downs help.
I use my fundamental design questions / rubric to break down these experiences, and then give a rating on their overall Immersion. I play everything on my Oculus Quest.
Today is AltspaceVR! AltspaceVR is a social VR experience where you and others can hang out, attend shows, meetups, classes or anything else. On their website they say, “AltspaceVR is the premier place to attend live shows, meetups, cool classes, and more with friendly people from around the world.”
Frankly, this is an app that I love to hate. Almost every aspect of AltspaceVR makes me mad, frustrated, or in some way bang my head against the wall. There is some good, but mostly a bunch of bad UX / UI. When I first dove into AltspaceVR, my hopes were high. I thought this might be my “go-to” place in VR. Sadly, it is not.
Now I get that AltspaceVR was one of the first VR meetup places officially launched in 2015, but this is really an application that doesn’t seem to be maturing from a UX perspective… (It’s owned by Microsoft… that may be a reason why.)
Anyway! Let’s get into it! Here’s my video teardown and my written teardown.
Also, moving forward in this series, I’m going to be going with an A+, A, B, C, D, F scale for each category. I’ve done numbers in the past, but at the suggestion of a friend, I’m trying something that makes a little more sense.
The visuals successfully created the right atmosphere.
- There are some basic shadows and lighting elements to give depth to the overall scene, and most scenes match the ambient lighting with the shadows, so the scene is usually lit realistically.
- The available spaces on the main menu are visually well done. The objects in the space make sense. The ambiance and lighting available are set properly and feel like a bar scene or outdoor balcony.
- Many of the buildings are deliberately askew giving it a Powerpuff Girls feeling.
- Community created “worlds” are a really interesting concept, but they are sometimes poorly lit, poorly colored, or poorly shadowed, but that’s the nature of community built Virtual Reality spaces.
The difficulty with rating visuals for AltspaceVR is that some of the spaces are carefully crafted and made by the AltspaceVR team and others are simply made by the community or individuals.
This creates a stark contrast between the expectation and what’s available, as the number of available community available “worlds” is much greater than the “well done” spaces.
Overall the lighting, colors, shadows, objects, and overall visual aesthetic of the AltspaceVR spaces are quite nice. They still feel cartoonish, but this is because they’re trying to re-create a real-world space. We all have a reference for a bar or coffee shop or theater, and because of that, no matter how close you try to mimic the space, it’s going to feel un-realistic.
(See Environment Section for more).
Relativity / Proximity: B
Relativity has 2 main components:
- What’s within arms reach
- What’s within walking distance in my Field of View.
Because of this, you have to be very cognizant of what the user can do without moving at all (like accessing menu’s, tools, actions, communications, etc.) and what requires locomotion.
Point and click actions (like teleporting) negate most of the relative perception of distance in an environment. On that note:
- In AltspaceVR almost all of the perceived distance is negated by the point and click function of teleportation.
- The cartoonish nature of the spaces make the in-game distances feel closer than they are.
- I’ve noticed that the ceilings in enclosed locations tend to feel farther away than they actually are. I believe this because IRL you can usually see the ceiling and walls of a room in your peripheral vision.
- AltspaceVR has done a good job of teleporting players on the edge of a location (and not just randomly in the middle). This allows them to see a location and explore more linearly. This reduces the overwhelm of entering a new space.
- The lack of interaction with objects and the point and click nature hinders the believability of distance. More interactions in the environment and with players would help with relativity.
- Make more menus handheld.
- Lower the ceilings of rooms and bring walls in a little tighter. Adding additional rooms and offshoots and exploratory places actually helps with relativity and proximity.
- Force users to actually “pick up” objects instead of just point and click to float to the object.
Interactivity (Players): F
Social experiences need social interactions.
- There are effectively 3 interactions that can be had with other players: Talk, Send Emojis, Play Games with each other.
- There are no player to player interactions that happen naturally. I have literally been asked for fist bumps and high fives EVERY TIME I’ve used AltspaceVR. RecRoom does this perfectly with a visual and haptic feedback on the interaction. This doesn’t exist in AltspaceVR. Very disappointing.
- Some people I can add as a friend and some people I can’t. This isn’t bad by itself, but it would make sense to see what that person was interested in so I have a reason to add them as a friend. Kinda like how RecRoom shows what games other players frequent.
- Most of the interactions are passive.
The entire point of AltspaceVR is P2P interactivity. It’s a social virtual meeting space!! When users are not interacting with each other, then the application is failing.
In this video, you watch someone new in AltspaceVR learning about the controls, and you can just see all the issues.
He literally says, “It would be cool if we could press a button and shake hands”… WHY NOT JUST SHAKE HANDS?!?!
- Conversation starter prompts. Most of the time in AltspaceVR, I’m roaming around with nothing to say or contribute. It’d be like going to networking event that has no purpose except to meet people. This idea is the reason why MySpace failed… there was no real communication or connectivity behind it. If every space had a conversation starter that was simply rotating around, then I’d guarantee there’d be more conversations. (I’m not saying this is the “ultimate” solution, but at least SOMETHING to get started.)
- More mini games. These promote engagement and at least give people a reason to stay in the space. Spin the wheel, a dunk tank, literally anything more than what’s available.
- Player related objectives to “accomplish” during onboarding. This could include adding 3 friends. Play a game with another player. Invite a player back to your home space. I wish there were more actions to add to this, but I can’t because the P2P actions are so limited.
Interactivity (Environment): D
Either everything is interactive or nothing is.
- Sometimes the environment is really interactive with air hockey, checkers, blocks, a piano, trampolines, and more.
- On the flip side, most of the spaces have almost 0 interactivity. This makes it a complete hit or miss in terms of interactions in the place that I’m in.
- Additionally, a lot of the spaces are dependent on interactions that are independent of the environment. For instance, there’s a snow space environment that lets you throw snow balls, which is nice, but there’s also a house that you can’t go into and a random game of corn hole that doesn’t really promote conversation.
The issue here is there is a cognitive disconnect between the world that I’m in and the actions that I can do. Some of the interactivity makes sense, but a lot of it doesn’t. IRL, if I’m in snow, I want to throw snowballs, but I also want to build snow men, and build a fire, and build an igloo, and make a snow slide, and snow board.
- Spaces could be like an actual concert / conference space where there are dozens of booths with games, food, products, and more. There just needs to be more interactivity.
Sizing / Proportions: C
The sizing was all over the place.
Sizing involves the size of objects, the room, tools, menus, fonts, images, characters, etc…
- Menu’s are sized correctly, but the contents within are too small. I’d increase them by 5–15%
- Most objects are overly sized. This includes the introductory objects like basketballs, fireworks, etc… Objects could have been reduced in size by about 5 — 10%
- Most rooms felt larger than expected with ceilings raised very high. This does prevent the user from feeling “constrained”, but also removes some of the realism of the space. Especially when teleported into the room.
- Most fonts were too small.
- The default character is also oddly thin and stiff. This isn’t realistic. Coupled with teleportation locomotion and it feels like stick figures are just popping in and out of the space rather than a person walking through a space and looking around. I’d want characters to look more like the black and green character in the header image of this article.
Nothing was so off that it completely turned me off from exploring the space, but the small inconsistencies prevent me from fulling engaging with the space and others and increase the time that I’m looking at menus.
Signals / Cues: D
Social experiences need social cues.
- There are some minor highlighting cues available to the user. This includes the basketball, the rockets, etc... but there wasn’t much else. Even objects like wine glasses that could be knocked over with a basketball couldn’t be knocked over with my hands.
- There is no visual cue on teleportation. People just pop in and out of existence.
- There is no audio cue as to who is speaking. Identifying the person speaking is difficult and can be disorienting.
- This may be user error, but there is signal that others can hear me. The HUD on the bottom left has the mute / unmute button, but sometimes my mic works / doesn’t work, or I’m just simply unaware if I’m muted or not.
- There was a moderator in the game that was asking a player to “stay out of her space”, and the only thing I kept thinking was “There is no way of knowing you are in or not in someone’s space”. The directive was pretty silly in my opinion.
- Some of the menu’s are actually moveable with the grip control, but I didn’t know that because there was no cue to that interaction.
- If a player teleports, there needs to be some type of mechanism that notifies other players that a teleportation has occurred. Simply popping into and out of existence is weird.
The Under Presents uses a hyperbolic easing visual cue to move the users in relation to other players. It’s odd, but the player doesn’t simply disappear and then reappear for no reason. You can see this around 24:37 in this video. There needs to be some visual cue that a player is teleporting within or in / out of the space.
It could be any number of very simple / quick animations that aren’t too visually distracting like a “pop” sound and a “sizzle” animation.
There needs to be an objective to onboarding. What does the user need to be able to do or understand once onboarding is “complete”?
- Onboarding starts off by putting a giant form field in your face requiring you to sign in using their cumbersome keyboard mechanism.
- Once you finally fill everything out, you’re entered into your “home” world and instructed to move about via teleporting. Personally I hate teleporting, so my first instinct was to start walking. As such, the blur vignette immediately filled my vision confusing the hell out of me. Why would the blur effect be the default option?
- After you manage to play with the different objects that are available, you’re left to figure the rest out on your own.
- There is also a provided AltspaceVR 101 meetup which is hosted everyday. THAT IS INSANITY! The onboarding and user mechanics are so bad, AltspaceVR has to pay people to teach users how to use their software. If this was an enterprise application, that would be different. This is a consumer application for people to hang out.
The video on the left is a 45 MINUTE INTRO VIDEO TO ALTSPACEVR!!!
While I can see it as a nice “intro” space to meet some new people, it’s a presentation instead of an interactive space to meet and engage with people.
- Include a list of things to accomplish. Let the user figure them out on their own instead of hand holding the user through everything. This list could include changing settings, adapting avatar, scheduling interest in an upcoming meeting, meeting new people, exploring new spaces, taking a selfie, sharing the selfie on social media, playing a game, and dozens of more things. You want to have a balance of holding hands and self discovery with an application.
- Provide a starting space that actually has people within the game to interact with. If this isn’t possible, a few NPC’s walking around giving advice or instructing you to try things would be cool.
- Instead of logging people in at “home” where they’re initially isolated from others, drop everyone off in a started space when they login and then let them go home if they want to. When I log into social VR, I want to socialize. Give it to me ASAP.
- The aspect about the menu capabilities that I actually like is the control over almost every setting. You can adjust teleportation, visual vignette blurs, audio communication, and more.
- However… there are SO MANY freaking menus. There is the HUD (head’s up display) that just floats around on your left. There is the main menu that to navigate to other experiences. There’s the menu to navigate when you’re in a world. There’s a menu for the settings. There’s a menu for messages. There’s a menu for almost everything.
- AND ALL THE MENU’S ARE FLAT, POINT AND CLICK MENU’S! From the user’s perspective, I feel like I’m spending more time navigating menu’s than actually trying to interact with other people.
- Then in the menu’s themselves, I CAN’T EVEN SCROLL!!! I have to “click” a down arrow or up arrow to move within the menu’s. Why can’t I just scroll like I can do natively in the Oculus Menu’s?
- They recently released a “search” feature, but I can’t find it. It’s genuinely easier to find events that happening via the AltspaceVR website than in the app.
- Some features have tooltips, and some do not. I don’t know why.
Seriously… I have to imagine engineering meetings going something like this:
Engineer: “We should allow users to create their own worlds!”
Other Engineer: “That’s a great idea! How should we let them do that?”
Manager: “Like everything else we do! Turn it into a point and click, flat, unintuitive menu of course!”
The only reason this passes with a D is because the menus give you enormous control over the settings. But for crying out loud… not everything needs to be in a menu.
- The HUD menu on the bottom, could easily be a palm activated menu. When I turn my left palm upward, it opens the menu and left me select an option with my right hand. RecRoom does this very intuitively with the “watch” menu.
- The main menu should scroll better and at the very least let me search for events. I was looking for a specific VR event that couldn’t be found because I couldn’t search for it.
- The main menu could have easily just been different rooms inside of your “home”, and the options could have been “portals” to the other worlds, like the paintings in Super Mario Odyssey that you can walk through.
- If you’re going to stick to flat surfaces, the main menu could have also been a big tablet with the places in my hand.
- Since AltspaceVR is primarily a sitting experience, you could avoid locomotion entirely and have the other locations be floating orbs in a room that you can select. Much like the galaxy map in Star Wars:
Then the user could grab the location they want to go to with their hands.
There was a lot to be desired with menu options in AltspaceVR.
- While there are different spaces that you can travel to, none of the space are all that highly interesting. It’s meeting rooms, cafe’s, open spaces, a park, etc…
- There are some intricacies with the environment, like couches, drink bars, houses, trees, rivers, but overall the spaces are so small that they’re frankly quite boring. Now, I understand that the point of the experience is not to play with the environment, but if there is no one in the room, what am I to do? Nothing.
This “boring” environment reduces player exploration, reduces interactivity with the environment, and makes the user jump from environment to environment.
This is where the imagination should be running wild! There are literally an infinite number of spaces that could exist:
A Dragon’s Den, a Space Ship, a Unicorn Forest, a Pirate Ship, a Circus Tent, a Casino, a Robot Manufacturing Plant, a Train Station, an Art Museum, and on and on and on… I could think of 100 more interesting locations than the boring default spaces that are available.
The benefit of going wild and creating spaces that are un-realistic is to suspend disbelief. Most people don’t have a reference point for a pirate ship so it’s much easier to trick the mind. On the other side, while most people have probably been to an Art Museum, there’s nothing stopping the space from being a M.C. Escher “Relativity” re-make.
The physics meet the minimum expectations of reality.
- Teleporting makes movement look erratic.
- Throwing objects can also look erratic and is difficult to control.
- Grabbing objects can be jittery. I was specifically grabbing a pair of drumsticks out of the hands of another player and the drumsticks just shook and then fly all over the place.
- Jumping on trampolines makes you feel more like you’re floating up and then floating down rather than the elastic easing like a jump normally has.
Locomotion should be an initial game selection.
- The initial option for locomotion is teleportation. While I’m assuming this is to reduce the chances for motion sickness, teleportation is the most un-realistic locomotion option.
- In the menus, there were dozens of locomotion controls that made it easy to adjust the type of locomotion that I’d like to experience.
- Moving your body IRL only moves your head and hands, but keeps the body stationary. This just feels unnatural.
Overall the locomotion options are really good, but the physics of locomotion and the player feedback of IRL feedback feel unnatural and reduce immersion in the space.
Audio / Sounds: B-
Sounds unconsciously signal to the user “activity” or lack there of.
- Talking volume increases proportionally to the proximity of the speaking individual.
- In the spaces themselves, there is almost no sounds. Sometimes you’ll hear a bird chirping or a river flowing. Campfires flicker.
- Sending Emojis make little popping sounds.
- A custom world or your home space can have music playing from a television or web browser player.
Whenever a space’s sound doesn’t match the environment, it feels off.
- Create spaces that suspend disbelief and introduce sounds that encapsulate the environment. i.e. a car factory, and have the sound of machines pounding and moving quietly in the background.
- Create sounds that match the environment. Most buildings will always have a slight hum in the background as A/C turns on and off, glasses clink, people feet make footsteps, doors open / close, etc… This “background” noise is to be expected and when it’s missing feels unnatural.
Controls connect the player with the space.
- If the actions are bad, then the controls feel bad. This is particularly apparent with the endless menus. Most controls are simple point and click, but the menu themselves make the point, click, drag, menu system of the Oculus difficult to use.
- Grabbing objects can feel unnatural with limited to 0 haptic feedback.
- I attempted to grab a basketball out of the air, but the proximity for grabbing was too small to let me grab it. Remember, gross motor movements are essential.
- On the menu scene, the controllers are shown with a “blow-up” of the actions on what they do. This is unnecessary and just confusing.
The controls are fairly simple, so they’re easy to learn, but unfortunately the controls are limited by the environment, objective, and interactivity of the experience. The controls were “good enough”, hence the C.
AltspaceVR exploration is too often the same thing over and over again.
- There are a few mini games throughout some of the spaces.
- There are a few different spaces to discover.
- You can “build” your own space, but the tool / menu system is unintuitive.
- I wanted to play the “Cards Against Humanity” game, but it wasn’t playing at the time I wanted it to. Why is it not just an ongoing game?
A social VR application should have exploration at its core. I imagine a Ready Player One style discovery for each space. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be something built around the space.
For example the talk-show space (just a stage and a set of bleachers) could have individual chairs that let you change their color. There could be a bucket of tomatoes to throw at people. There could be handheld whiteboard signs that let you write on them and show to the stage. There could be a secret back-stage room. There could be a green-room with “refreshments”. There could be a lasers / lights that are modifiable to change the feel of the scene. There could be any number of discoverable, interactive elements that enhance your desire to engage and explore.
While playing RecRoom, I loved discovering that I could give other players high-fives and fist bumps. It was magical.
Even if I’m attending a concert, stand-up comedy session, meetups or classes, the space that I’m in plays an enormous role in my ability to pay attention, participate, met others, and overall engage.
There’s a reason why the best kindergarten in the world is designed around play. Your audience will absorb their environment and respond appropriately.
This doesn’t completely fail because of the ability to “build your own space”. (However flawed it may be.) Other than that, there isn’t anything to actually explore in AltspaceVR. After “discovering” the available spaces and dynamics of the scene (which can be done in about 1 hour), that’s it.
- Too much emphasis is put into the menu’s and not enough consideration is given to the P2P interactions and environment. AltspaceVR tries to do too much and fails to do simple things right.
- The only reason I believe people use AltspaceVR is because it’s one of the only options that’s available and free to use.
- The UI / UX is so bad, that I firmly believe people will leave the minute Facebook Horizon’s is available. (So long as it’s even slightly more useable… hopefully after reading this article haha.)
- Even as I’m on right now, January 8th, 2020, at 10:30 a.m. CST, I counted a grand total of less than 100 people in all of the available HUBS locations. When EVERYONE IN THE WORLD can access AltspaceVR, when no one usually has work, and Quests and Index’s sold like hotcakes… there’s still barely anyone.
Immersion Score: Big Fat F
AltspaceVR is an experience that is just not worth it. Too many menus, lack-luster controls, unimpressive spaces, too few interactions with the environment, too few visual / audio / social cues, and too few events happening to bring me back, all contribute to AltspaceVR getting a Big Fat F for immersion.
What I truly wish they had done was make a limited number of really engaging spaces, sprawled out, with more to “discover”, enhanced P2P interactions, conversation prompts, and even hosted a few games like the Cards Against Humanity spin off all the time.
Ultimately, there’s no reason for me to come back. It’s unfortunate, because I actually want to meet people in the VR world, but AltspaceVR just isn’t where it’s going to happen.
If you’re looking to build a Virtual Reality experience or have already started on building one, let me know if you’d like me to review your application and help out!
Also, if you’d like to reach out checkout my website: https://bazemore.me