Back-seat drivers, road closed: VR ahead

Carolyn Crenshaw
May 24, 2016 · 4 min read

If you’re legally allowed behind the wheel, chances are you have had to fight off a back-seat driver. This could be your sibling, your parent, your friend, your partner… and even as unlikely as it sounds, this could even be you sometimes. I can set my hubris aside and admit I am guilty. Sometimes.

Once I establish routes for my frequent drives– to campus, to the grocery store, to the interstate, etc.– I rarely, if ever, deviate from them. When I am in the passenger seat with a newcomer, I always direct them down my own personal beaten paths. In my mind, these routes are the “right” ways to get to these places. Any deviation from these paths is psychologically painful to endure.

I am being intentionally hyperbolic here because, in those moments, the urge to give unsolicited directions is borderline irresistible, especially when we have convinced ourselves that we are right.

Back-seat driver habits are not limited to the road. Experienced gamers can also be guilty of such behavior, especially when watching the gameplay of an amateur.

Full disclosure: I am not a gamer. I love tech, I love VR, I enjoyed Age of Empires as a child, and can keep up on Super Smash Brothers, but I have no delusions of grandeur about my abilities. Think Jim Halper trying to play Call of Duty.

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Karen gets it. Jim and I do not.

Although the controller feels clumsy in my hands and I often lose track of the buttons, the autonomy of a single-player game is sacred and lies with she who holds the controller. There is value in letting amateurs awkwardly bumble through new or unfamiliar technology, and back-seat gamers can ruin these crucial early exposures. Confidence, prolonged interest, and patience can evaporate with too much guidance.

The presence of a back-seat driver puts the entire carpool at a higher risk for a serious crash. Your skills as a driver actually decrease because of the outside interference. In my experience, unsolicited advice in an already stressful situation is never received well.

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Part of the reason it is so easy to backseat drive, whether it is a car or a video game, is because you see exactly what the driver sees, as they see it.

This is yet another way that virtual reality sets itself apart.

Imagine you’re being woefully berated by a back-seat driver. You tune them out. Except that person reaches up from the back-seat and physically grabs you. This sudden, unexpected physical contact would likely startle you, causing you to change your direction, possibly veering into other cars or off the road completely. Seems dangerous, right?

When a person pulls an HMD down over their eyes for the first time, we can only presume to know what they are really seeing and feeling. Sure, we can project the dual-camera display to mimic the device. But that projection is fundamentally different for the user and the observer. If it is an effective simulation, the user will feel present in the environment. Add headphones, and the IRL-VR divide is solidified. The observers are firmly rooted IRL, while the user forgets we exist.

I would not assert that a backseat driver is trying to ruin another’s experience. There are definitely times when additional directions and instructions are necessary. However, giving instructions when the user is already immersed in the environment is only going to take away from their sense of presence. Back-seat driving after presence has been established would likely ruin the experience.

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Sometimes, directions are necessary.

Those who have never experimented with HMDs– or VRgins, as I’ve seen them described– are relearning their senses and motor skills. The time it takes for a VRgin to adjust varies, but no one but the user can perform the adjustment. Trying to rush this adjustment period by giving unsolicited advice, like verbally giving instructions or physically altering the user’s position, could potentially overshadow any positives the user might feel during the simulation.

We put everyone in the car at higher risk of a crash when we try to back-seat drive.

User comfort is the on-going UX/UI battle within the VR industry, with many designers and developers on a mission to set such standards. If the user is not comfortable in the experience, they will be robbed of the joy that comes from a first spectacular VR simulation. This obviously has huge consequences on market demand, and subsequently the industry itself. Perhaps a solution to some of these ills lies not in the hands of the designers and developers, but in how the audience treats each other.

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