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Being There: Embodiment in VR

Over the past few months many of my Virtual Reality projects have struggled through the development process searching for best practices and design rules. As I kick off a semester long project that focuses on embodying sound and music within VR space, it is not a bad time to consider the challenges and quirks of the medium. As a designer, my hope is for the experience we create to have that magic factor that allows the guest to feel they are “present” in our virtual world. Many of our upfront design concerns have tackled this idea of embodiment, both from a design and content perspective, as well as while considering platforms.When designing in three dimensional space it feels like a good idea to use the medium to its fullest. Fill the space visually; use all of it. I have seen many demos in the last week that surround the guest with with rainbows, colossal donuts, and particle effects that explode into your face.

Plaything VR has slightly terrifying visuals.

These quickly begin to feel like cheap tricks when used in excess. Digital arts journalist, Laura Snoad, encourages some discretion: “VR is generally 10 times more intense than other media, so slow and steady experiences are the most pleasurable to watch.” Not only do visually-overloaded experiences tend to lead to nausea or eye strain, they are kind of grotesque. A fellow master’s student who is consulting on my current project described the Vive Headset as a blindfold. She recommended restraint while introducing the guest to the experience; considerately design the entrance into your world. Taking a minimalist approach, you also have a chance of giving power to key assets and interactions.

This subtly is also important in the level of immersion. There is a general idea that the more detailed and realistic the environment the more ”present” a player feels. In his GDCEU talk, Jed Ashforth coined it the “Uncanny [VR] Valley” – a tipping point at which the game world feels so robust, that even a very small mismatch, between the guest and their experience, yanks them out of the game world. Because this is such an emotional medium, Jed also cautions designers to be aware of setting their guest up against their real-life fears and phobias. While there are many workarounds for issues of immersion, a simple solution is to use a level of artistic abstraction. While student projects are not likely to be in danger of crossing the “realism” threshold, I think our hope in my current project is to avoid realism completely and stylize. Our aim is to achieve embodiment with the players movement and gestures, and let this, rather than visual realism, carry the immersiveness.

And for me, playing with technologies that really do allow me to feel, even for a short time, that I am embodying a virtual self, are magical. The room scale VR that can be achieved with the HTC Vive is freeing. While the range is still a bit limited, it goes a long way in combating motion sickness. I have also seen some clever ways to design around this. One of which is not teleportation. Teleportation starts to feel like a bit of a sin in Vive space. One of the first VR experiences I worked on was about world destruction, a Godzilla-sized chicken takes out her anger on a city. In trying to nail down our scaling, getting the monster-to-skyscraper ratio to feel right, we somehow ended up having our beast teleport herself around town. This was well meant, we wanted her to have plenty to destroy and explore. But it felt awful and made no sense. So, I pushed for our chicken to grow in size, to become even more giant, every time she leveled up ( conveniently blamed on radiation poisoning a la’ the Hulk.). This sizing-up meant that she would gain access to a larger footprint of the city, more to destroy, and, she was also rewarded with an increased sense of power within the world. It was an imperfect solution, because it took control of the guests’ head, lifting them off the ground 50 feet at a time. But, the controllers (visible as chicken wings) helped give them a frame of reference. And, it didn’t seem as debilitating as throwing them back and forth across the city. The Vive tracking encourages the player to feel free to take on a role of an Avatar more completely. Teleportation seems a sure way to break that engagement and presence… and to make them feel nauseous.

An aspect of the Vive that does not support embodiment quite so fully however, is the controllers. The Verge touts them as being “highly versatile, providing the kind of tactile feedback that pure finger-tracking solutions like Leap Motion lack”. There is a tricky balance here that may come down to the individual experience. The Vive controllers have a nice weight and balance and the centered tracking is a strong point. On the other hand they are a little meaty, and a little clumsy. For a world that relies on nuanced movement or gesture this feels limiting.

While exploring potential platforms this was a concern, so, we are trying to hack two of these technologies together. Leap Motion, while still imperfect with occlusion and accuracy, does encourage finessed movement that pairs with music and dance. Don’t drop your hands to your sides though. They stop existing outside the view of the Leap Motion sensors. To fix this we are considering interpolating hand position from a pair of Vive Trackers worn at the forearm. This is an inelegant, clunky solution. But, the technology we select will go a long way in defining the limitations of the experience.

The idea of embodiment is one of the more interesting challenges that VR faces. Immersiveness itself is not necessarily a positive in this medium and should be used carefully, as should visual stimulation in general. There is also the need to find a platform that allows you to feel as integrated as possible, one that limits mismatch, something that is still currently to each experience I build. At the moment my team is still struggling with a balancing act of choosing our technology. But, I think the key to our experience will be protecting the guest, seeing to their comfort first, and then, giving them the most expressive system we can hack together

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