Gibsonian Affordances as Applied to Interactivity in VR
Evolutionary processes have endowed the developing mind with the urge to explore its environment and understand the objects that lie within, which is why some non-human animals and unsupervised children will completely upend your home if given the chance. Since it is an evolutionary process, the main goal is survival, but the intermediate goals are (#1) to enhance physical skills like dexterity, (#2) to either find food or the tools to obtain food, (#3) amusement. In human adults, the need for exploration rarely persists because they, or a delegated professional, have mastered the tools required for their so-called survival, a caulk gun, a spoon, a shoehorn… So, these items are stuffed in drawers and taken out when needed, or they become decorative items put on display shelves and hung on the wall. The sense of exploration only returns when playing new games or with the latest IOS update.
The consideration of object possibilities, i.e. what an object is used for, is called Affordances (or Gibsonian Affordance Theory). Using this theory, we describe a chair by its sit-ability, or boxes for their store-ability and stack-ability. While affordances could be used in discussions on survival methods, perception, and MacGyver inspired lifehacks, it may also be discussed in the context of interactive design and, for our purposes, we will discuss them in the context of VR.
Interactive Virtual Reality environments, when effective, reignite our youthful interest in finding the affordances available to us. The team at Owlchemy Labs are a case and point since their experiences thus far (Job Simulator and Rick & Morty) give us an array of objects usable in many elaborate combinations to achieve the same goal (i.e. making coffee). These minor projects are made more satisfying by the novel methods employed to complete them because we have a subconscious realization that we now have more power in the (virtual) world. There are, meanwhile, experiences that have yet to learn the same lessons since they include objects with no affordances beyond decoration (decorate-ability). I will use VR program Pararea as a case study.
Pararea is a new social VR platform out of China which, as seen as above, borrows heavily from the much beloved Rec Room (Now on PSVR!). Though I’ve visited Pararea a few times and have yet to meet anyone else, the ease of movement, moderate interactivity, and access to animated music videos give it potential as a social VR platform. Of the six available environments, they include one in particular called Night that places you in a beach-side village illuminated by candles, street lamps, and moonlight; what follows are the events of my first visit:
After I dressed myself in a wide-brimmed hat and sandals, I teleported to the environment and found myself alone. Circling the cobbled streets, I first came to a compact car and inspected it by turning the handle and poking my head through the window to learn it lacked drive-ability. I recognized wishing to drive a car was silly as it would be hard to navigate and induce nausea, but the glimmer of hope was undeniable.
Next, I arrived at a rack of colorful shovels and pails. Feeling a wave of nostalgia for family trips to the beach wash over me and excitement that I might use these bright, plastic tools to dig (dig-ability) and make a glorious sand castle (build-ability), I reached out my hand to pull a green shovel and pail, but my hand passed right through them, leaving me dejected.
At a nearby shop, I found a posterboard with a variety of beach-themed postcards tacked onto it and, as I scanned them, I thought to myself how clever it would be to find postcards (attain-ability) in different sections of the VR platform, write endearing notes on them (write-ability), and digitally ship them (send-ability)to your friends in or even external to VR. I reached out just one more time in an attempt to interact and have some effect on this virtual landscape, but depressingly my hand passed through the object once again.
There were things to like in my visits to Pararea, but the moral of this experience is clear. In the Virtual Reality medium, interactivity is a (nearly) all or nothing feature for VR experiences. In the long term, users’ attention quickly drifts from the abilities provided them by the environment to actions they’re unable to take. The end result is to bring them back to the platform and feel engaged due to its exploratory potential, not making them feel powerless.