Social VR will be awesome if diverse voices create it

Mindful Realities Makeathon Recap

On April 1st, 2017, We Make Realities gathered teams of unicorns, jackalopes, pixies, owls, dragons, red pandas, pegasus-es, and sasquatch-es to discuss social VR. And that’s no joke!

These magical creatures represented the 36 designers, domain experts, and cognitive researchers that attended the Mindful Realities Makeathon, a one-day event that unites diverse fields of thought to address important design questions — without code.

Each team was assigned a mystical identity and equipped with brainstorming materials you would find in a Kindergarten classroom: pipe cleaner, Play Doh, crayons, Legos, construction paper, and glue sticks.

Oh, and don’t forget the sharpies and sticky notes. Hella sticky notes, yo!

Our Problem Statement

As VR slowly disseminates into households and offices, more and more users are spending time in social virtual spaces. Rec Room, for example, is where you can join someone from across the world for a game of paintball or disc golf. They’ve had users in Rec Room 24/7 since launch, and their community continues to grow.

Selfie video taken in Rec Room
Social VR is not a gimmick. We’ll see a diversity of cultures, ages, genders, and personalities present in these virtual spaces.

But before social VR can be appealing to a broader consumer base, we have some work to do. There’s been cases of harassment, confusion around what social VR even is, and many have anxiety around “stepping into” a virtual world with strangers.

The goal of the Mindful Realities Makeathon was to bring together minds beyond the VR industry to discuss how we can thoughtfully approach social VR design. This was the first makeathon of our series, so we wanted to start off with a broad problem statement:

“Social VR will change the way we connect, learn, and create.
We’ve seen some hesitation around social VR due to its current nature (harassment, anonymity, cultural barriers).
How might we design social VR worlds that are welcoming, safe, and collaborative?”

The day consisted of a series of talks (links to slides are available in the speakers section near the end of this post) and brainstorming exercises revolved around the problem statement above.

Hundreds of sticky notes later

Over the course of 8 hours, sticky notes spread everywhere in the room. It was one giant beautiful rainbow of creativity.

On the sticky notes, teams wrote out “How Might We” questions, a common design exercise practiced by Google, IDEO, and Facebook. Each team produced 30+ How Might We (HMW) sticky notes that explored areas of opportunity for the problem statement defined earlier.

Examples included:

HMW remove language as a barrier in social VR?
HMW feel close to one another with boundaries and consent?
HMW visualize mood or preferences of a social VR user?
HMW reward social VR users for positive interactions?
HMW bring social VR users together to collaborate?

More and more HMW’s emerged as speakers shared insights on their experiences with community-building, harassment, and VR design in general. It was awesome to see the unique perspectives that each participant brought to the table, and having it represented visually on a sticky note or in the form of led to more meaningful discussions, and a prettier room full of rainbows. They also revealed themes that guided teams throughout the rest of the design process:

Useful graph visualizing comfort/intentions in social VR. Created by team Red Panda!

To explore these ideas further, participants hopped into social VR worlds (Rec Room, AltSpace, and VRChat) to gain a deeper understanding of how they work and feel. We called this “VR ethnography”.

We teamed up with representatives in social VR apps who would answer questions and give tours to makathon teams. A ton of participants had never tried these social experiences, and were blown away by the idea of being right next to a real person in VR. It was honestly hard to get them out of the headsets!

Teams took what they gathered from the HMW questions and VR ethnography sessions to narrow their scope down to a single idea for a social VR feature. Six of these features are explained in the form of Medium posts that are linked in the next section. These ideas are open-sourced, so run go ahead and run wild with them!

How social VR creators can approach design

Discussions at the Mindful Realities Makeathon revealed strategies that social VR creators can apply to the design process. We found that they helped participants approach the complexity of social VR, so we hope they help you, too!

1. Invite a variety of voices to your brainstorming session

Each makeathon team had various backgrounds, identities, and genders represented.

Many VR developers have expressed difficulties they’ve faced with figuring out how to make virtual worlds safe and welcoming. The Mindful Realities Makeathon revealed the importance of representing diverse fields of thought on a team, especially including those who understand how humans think and feel (behavioral scientist, for ex).

During your next design discussion, look at who’s in the room. Do you have a range of backgrounds and identities represented? If everyone in the room looks the same and share similar backgrounds, go do some outreach! Invite women, PoC, psychologists, harassment experts, accessibility advocates, and community builders, and any other onto your team.

Inviting in these voices now will save us a ton of time and reveal ideas we never would have considered if we didn’t reach out to diverse thinkers.

2. Put away the computers

You’d be surprised with the wild yet applicable ideas that emerge from $50 of Kindergarten supplies. When we jump straight into prototyping VR in a game engine, we limit our thinking to the technology we are building with, while also excluding team members who don’t code. Instead, start your brainstorming sessions with laptops closed.

Using a range of physical prototyping tools also opens up the door for everyone to participate in the conversation. Everyone can choose their preferred method of communication, whether that’s crayon sketches, Play Doh models, or mini people made out of pipe cleaner. Oh, and Legos are cool, too.

3. Topics to bring into design discussions:

When we’re cooking up ideas for social VR worlds, we sometimes forget how those features will contribute to the culture and comfort of a virtual community. Social VR creators should use terms like the ones below to make sure they are considering a variety of perspectives or experiences a user may have:

Body language, gestures, moods, social skills, social anxiety, self expression, safety, shyness, interacting with strangers, abusive behavior, consequences, identity, security, understanding, privacy, accessibility, cultural norms, language barriers, autism, self consciousness, collaboration, camaraderie, environment, representation

4. Open-sourced ideas to implement and test:

Each of the ideas below were created at the makeathon (see the linked team names for more details). Teams have shared these as open-sourced resources for VR creators to experiment with!

  • A token system in social VR that reinforces good deeds (Team Sasquatch)
  • Culture on-boarding for new users (Team Red Panda)
  • Authentic versus public avatars (Team Dragon)
  • Customize for users who experience social challenges (Team Fairy)
  • Building a utopia in VR that teaches ethics/collaboration (Team Unicorn)
  • Reward “levels of awesomeness (LOA)” for good behavior (Team Jackalope)
  • Interactive exercise for teaching positive behaviors (Team Owl)

Continuing the Conversation

Have questions around your own social VR app? Want to run prototypes by a community of researchers and domain experts who are super duper passionate and full of ideas? Join our Slack! Follow us on Twitter for topics on VR/cognitive science/ethics.

Want to get involved with the next makeathon? Email us at

Big thanks to our speakers!

Each speaker contributed a unique perspective around social VR that sparked discussions and considerations.

Rec Room (slides)

Cameron Brown, Creative Director (Against Gravity)

Preventing Abuse in VR (slides)

Renee Gittins, Creative Director/CEO (Stumbling Cat)

Intro to Social VR Design

Stephanie Engle, Product Designer and Cliff Warren, Product Designer (Facebook)

Constraints and Considerations for Social VR Experiences (slides)

Troy Hewitt, Co-founder and Director and Jeannie Voirin-Gerde, Co-founder and Creative Director (uGen World)

Big thanks to our sponsors!

Each of our sponsors are working to make social VR awesome, so it was an honor to have them involved. The makeathon couldn’t have happened without their generosity!

Against Gravity (Gold Sponsor)

If you haven’t tried social VR or curious to explore more, go install Rec Room and join in on Disc Golf or Paintball with people across the world. Against Gravity, creators of Rec Room, are very responsive to their community ❤

ARVR Academy (Bronze Sponsor)

If you want to learn VR creation, check out ARVR Academy. They are dedicated to diversity and inclusion in immersive and emerging technologies through education and professional development efforts. They have resources available online and in-person. Feel free to drop them a line!

VREAL (Bronze Sponsor)

VREAL is a platform that allows you to jump into a VR game with friends and watch each other play, even if you don’t own it. Although VREAL is not released yet, they are designing social features with harassment in mind and researching ways in which we can encourage positive social interactions.

Substantial (Venue Sponsor)

Located in the heart of Capitol Hill, Substantial is a digital product studio that supports many events addressing meaningful design questions. Substantial engages with various communities in order to learn, share, and support. Their studio is a beautiful. Definitely check out their Beer && Code nights every other Wednesday.

The Mindful Realities Makeathon was a collaboration between Eva Hoerth, Andrea Zeller, Staishy Siem, and Nicole Calace. If you’d like to get in touch with us, please email

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