Mindful Realities Makeathon: Team Fairy

Designing virtual spaces for people experiencing challenges in social situations

Nicole VanMeter
Apr 2, 2017 · 8 min read

About Us

Team Fairy is:

Nicole VanMeter (Content Strategist, UX Researcher) — Masters Student in the HCDE program at the University of Washington, focusing on usability research in VR/AR environments.

Catherine Most (VR designer/developer) — Computer Science & HCI degree from Dartmouth College, passionate about creating inclusive environments.

Mano Barkovics (UX Designer / AR-VR Creator) — Informatics undergrad at University of Washington focusing on HCI, and creating dynamic immersive simulations.

Natalie Doud (Artist, Aerialist, Designer) – Focus on visual art, design, social interaction, and physical movement. BFA in interactive design (U of MN). Aerial yoga instructor and circus performer.

Our Problem Space

Thinking about virtual reality, our team ventured to explore the problem space relating to people that might experience challenges in various social settings. From shyness and a lack of confidence in group settings, to things like autism and social anxiety, there are myriad ways that people affected by these issues may struggle within a real or virtual environment.

With this in mind, we asked ourselves, “How might we design virtual spaces for people that might experience challenges in social situations?”

Our team felt this problem was so important because based on evidence from studies like the Harvard Mens Study, some of the biggest predictors of health, longevity and happiness can be directly correlated to the number and depth of social connections we have. Barriers to entry within both physical and virtual worlds create a large detriment social health.

In our introduction to Rec Room, some of the largest reads on delight were focused around interaction with other users within the environment. Between miming and gesturing, players could get a sense of camaraderie and immediate feedback with others. However, when we became limited in how we could interact (either through audio, voice, or movement) immediately we felt as though we were missing out on something great. As a result, not being able to read into or provide feedback into the environment opens the window for potential harassment.

There’s a great opportunity here to level the playing field for accessibility and facilitation of communication and social involvement, boosting the confidence of all users, and creating an overall enriching experience in uncharted territories.

The Journey for Our User

The user
Thinking about who this might impact, this could really be anyone who experiences challenges relating to social interaction. We’re designing for people who may be impacted in some capacity by the following:

  • Autism spectrum (Aspergers)
  • Social anxiety
  • Shyness
  • Overall lack of confidence in social scenarios
  • Facial blindness

People that are affected by these types of social hurdles tend to value the following in their environments, interactions, and relationships:

  • Minimal stimulus
  • Simplistic inputs
  • Direct and unambiguous communication
  • Control over personal space

These users know that social interaction is key for development and ongoing success, both in personal relationships, and also in co-op scenarios and teamwork situations where facilitation is key.

What they might not know and require additional help with are things like reading social cues and gestures and deriving meaning from those interactions. Additionally, when presented with these scenarios, they might not know how to react or respond appropriately.

Ultimately, these users strive to go into new experiences and meet new people, but do require additional help and assistance in terms of reading social scenarios and navigating that world.

Our solution
In an effort to help people impacted by these conditions, we first took a look at areas that may be particular pain-points for these populations. Things like the inability to identify social or emotional cues, lack of control over external stimuli, and inability to control how involved they are in the free environment provide a number of stumbling blocks for overall experiences, both virtual and in the real world. Our solution must strive to work towards the following goals:

  • Identifying and expressing internal states
  • Clarifying unspoken rules of social interaction
  • Giving users control over their level of engagement
  • Simplifying and minimizing external stimuli

Further below, we provided some insight around gaps identified in the current system, and what we might suggest to combat these problems.

We ultimately decided to dive deeper into this user set for a variety of reasons:

  • Studies show the biggest predictors of happiness and life expectancy are the number and quality of social interactions a person experiences.
  • Virtual reality has the opportunity to level the playing field for interaction and involvement between users, which could provide a more controlled, but freeing experience for people troubled by these social issues.

Empathy and Perspective

Scenario: It is the first day of class within a virtual environment. You are in a room with 15 other people virtually present.

Physical Orientation:

You are in a room with 15 other avatars present. People might be moving into groups or congregating based on interests. In most cases, the people in these classes do not know each other prior to meeting, but there may be cases where people are familiar with one another.

  • User pain-point: Not knowing other users, and potentially not using real names. No clear direction or guidelines on using the space could prove to be a stumbling block if it is a larger group/large scale classroom.
  • Potential solution: Having a clearly stated set of guidelines and code of conduct for within the space. Optional on-boarding that can be skipped for users that may not need it, but having it available for users that do.


Avatars can be within fairly close proximity to one another. Interactions with objects are pretty minimal (whiteboard use, projector to show files, workbenches for displaying items) but are mostly used for educational purposes.

  • User pain-point: This may be difficult for people who might need additional buffer space when in a large social environment or around groups or crowds.
  • Potential solution: Having the ability to set a boundary for your avatar. For people that are consistently testing those boundaries, being able to turn off interaction with specific people can be impactful. For authority figures (TAs, professors) the ability to ban people from the environment should also be enabled.

Physical and Emotional Reactions:

Awareness needs to be high in these environments, because you never know when you might be called on. There may be a sense of anxiety or concern, given the potential to be called on at any moment.

  • User pain-point: If someone is not ready, especially if they might be concerned or nervous about the situation they’re in, it might further drive users with social issues to withdraw from these actions.
  • Potential solution: Having the ability to give yourself a 1 minute break to take a breather from the classroom. Guidelines would need to be set (for how many times a break can be taken/how long, etc.) but would provide a mental moment to collect one’s self.

Interactions with Users/Characters:

Chat happens via a microphone primarily, but your avatar might not be responding in a manner that is indicative of your mood or feelings.

  • User pain-point: Not having some of those cues into emotions, thoughts, or feelings might prove difficult in reading into a conversation or responding appropriately.
  • Potential solution: An indicator that allows for you to set yourself to a certain level of interaction (green = open and ready for interaction, yellow = interact if I interact with you first, red = no outside interaction)

Directional Cues:

All the normal trappings of a classroom would carry over into the virtual reality world. Between talking to your classmates, responding to being called on, and presenting, a person would have to react to all of these things.

  • User pain-point: Needing to react, and having the attention solely on them can be petrifying, even behind the anonymity of an avatar.
  • Potential solution: Consider a subtle way to get attention (either by indication with a switch/button, coloring their avatar, etc.) without drawing too much attention to your change.

Visual Field/Readability:

We might need to see things like projections, writings, or shared files within the virtual classroom.

  • User pain-point: Having multiple stimuli within the environment, in addition to changing inputs could be bewildering to someone who is attempting to filter to the most necessary information.
  • Potential solution: Allow for people to increase/decrease controls for legibility. Potentially leveraging text to speech for people who might have trouble reading. Being prompted when something is being displayed as to not miss it.

Physical Comfort:

There may be a sense of unease overall with new people or new scenarios within the classroom. As people get to know more about one another, the comfort overall might increase.

  • User pain-point: It may be difficult to find comfort or feel at ease in a situation where people are entirely foreign or within a new environment.
  • Potential solution: Introducing a ‘dorm room’ type space that allows you to remove yourself from the larger group. Also possibly allowing for you to turn off all external stimuli for a set period of time to take a break. Including more expansive graphics (like galaxies, stars, etc.) in an effort to re-ground yourself.

Motion and Gestures:

Free movement within the constraints of the classroom are encouraged. Gestures freely encouraged in conversation and response.

  • User pain-point: Gestures that may be perceived as positive for a specific environment or scenario could drive rifts among classmates.
  • Potential solution: Reducing overall number of gestures to avoid confusion. Potentially having a key or legend as the type of gestures involved. Gestures might also have an audio link to a description (ex. if you wave, the voice might say “User 1 gave you a happy wave.”).

Experience and Learnings

It is our hope based on the potential solutions noted above that our virtual worlds can be crafted in a way that allow for easing the pressures of social environments. By implementing some of the above-mentioned solutions, we feel that social interactions can be more robust for all users, and especially for users who have trouble navigating social scenarios.

The above ideas address our initial problem statement by focusing particularly on where users with social hindrances might be able to gain confidence in navigating social scenarios virtually, without also hindering users that might not experience the same.

The biggest gap we have right now is validation. Being able to do an inquiry into this set of users would be key in validating our assumptions regarding the experience.

Advice for Building Other VR Experiences

We would recommend user testing across this set of users in an effort to glean more direct knowledge into how best these experiences can be shaped. Ideally, someone on the development team might also fall into one of these categories, so accessibility can be addressed at the forefront.

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