5 things Land’s End taught me about virtual reality user experience

Land’s End is definitely the best game I’ve tried on my Gear VR. It’s a calm, short exploration/puzzle game that draws a line all the way back to Myst. As a VR game, it gets so many things right, and I wanted to share a few learnings I will take with me when building VR experiences.

1. Gaze based interaction can work great

The HTC Vive controllers are great and the Oculus Touch controllers will probably be even better. Leap Motion is drastically improved and eye based tracking is undoubtedly coming in next generation head mounted displays.

The current Gear VR doesn’t have any of this, though. It has a fiddly touchpad on the side and the ability to connect a bluetooth gamepad. For this reason (and after loads of user testing), the developers behind Land’s End decided to go with ‘gaze’ controls only. Good decision.

Their implementation gets a number of things exactly right:

  • The cursor (or reticle) is only visible when looking near something that can be interacted with, and it’s appearance is augmented by an auditory clue.
  • Interaction spots are easy to find, with movement spots ‘sticking out’ as white dots with a black border, and other spots being more integrated into the environment, but always consistently marked.
  • Once the cursor hovers on the right spot, intuitive visual and auditory cues clearly indicate how long the gaze will need to be kept before the interaction is committed.

2. It can feel natural to move around with gaze

As is the case in many 1st person VR games, you have no body in Land’s End. If you look down, you just see the ground beneath. You are a ghost.

That blends well together with the way movement works in Land’s End. At least one ‘movement spot’ — a white circle with a black border — is always visible, and once activated, you glide towards it with a motion the developers have without a doubt spent endless hours on getting just right. Once you reach your destination, the ‘movement spot’ falls to the ground and sticks out.

VR best practice teach us that many people will feel nauseated when moving around in a virtual world while their body stays perfectly still in the real world. This can be neutralized to a large extent by giving a static point of reference in the virtual world, such as placing the 1st person view inside a car.

Land’s End doesn’t do this, but you somehow feel safe when floating from one point to another as a ghost, enjoying the scenery along the way. It certainly didn’t get me nauseated, although I did get slightly dizzy once or twice when I played it standing. Especially since the game likes to float you all the way to an edge with a splendid view — and a long way down.

3. Gaze controls works better when there is no time pressure

I’ve tried quite a few games on the Gear VR where you ‘shoot with your eyes’. Those games are based on quickly and preciously turning your head in the right direction, and you do so over and over again. It quickly becomes a strain on your neck, and the lack of precision an annoyance.

Land’s End is calm, serene game where you have all the time in theworld to move around and figure things out. That makes a massive difference and plays to strengths of gaze controls, letting your head move naturally and without strain.

4. Use the full 360

Many VR games assume you are sitting at a desk with some ability to look around and move your upper body a bit, but not much more than that. So they keep everything important more or less in front of you, or provide a method for turning in the virtual world without moving in the real world.

Land’s End starts out with explicitly telling the player that he or she will need to able to turn around 360 degrees either sitting on a rotating chair or standing up — which says a lot about how uncommon this approach is currently is. The games goes on to make great use of this premise.

Several times in the game, after floating from one spot to another, you are forced to turn 90 degrees or more to find your next movement spot or puzzle. This in turn makes you see and enjoy much more of the scenery all around you, than if you had just always had things right in front of you.

5. Moving blocks with your gaze is awesome

Many of Land’s End’s puzzles have you moving around stone blocks. This might sound mundane, but the developers have nailed the interaction so well that it becomes an immensely enjoyable task. Once activated, the position of your gaze relative to the interaction point on the stone block decides which direction the block moves in, and how fast it moves. To drop the block at it’s current location, you simply look sharply and quickly away to ‘cut the connection’. Very intuitive.

Spoiler alert! (Skip this paragraph to avoid.) My favorite chapter in the game — chapter 3 — includes assembling a man-like statue out of several stone blocks. The stone blocks have to be positioned just right to ‘activate’ the statue, and you have to ‘cut the connection’ at just the right time to place the blocks correctly. I found myself thinking: ‘Maybe this is how they really built the Pyramids’.

There is discrete help built into moving blocks. Blocks that are supposed to be rotated will do so eagerly once activated, while blocks that shouldn’t be rotated will respond differently and refuse to do so. Also, invisible walls have been put up to prevent the blocks from leaving their designated puzzle area. Again, it probably took a lot of user testing to get these things right.

In conclusion

VR experiences need a lot of user testing and tweaking around movement and interaction, but if enough time is spent, the result can be as good and novel as is the case for Land’s End.

While we eagerly await and experiment with new control schemes for VR experiences, let’s not forget that we have something that can work great with Cardboard, Gear VR and everything else that is coming, if we follow the example Land’s End sets: Gaze controls.

Casper Fabricius is a freelance developer specializing in virtual reality. With 16 years of experience as a fullstack web developer he has a special interest in WebVR and is an A-Frame contributor. He tweets abouts VR and coding as @fabricius.