Tech Presence is a series on the exploration of Augmented Reality, Virtual reality, haptics, and other technologies that blur the lines between digital signals and human sensory perception.
User Experience in Virtual Reality, Like Designing Real Life
Designing UX for VR is an interesting challenge. You're constrained by the hardware, the amount of play space the user has, and the fact that your users can do things an avatar can't. They could throw a controller, walk down an actual long hallway, walk off a virtual bridge. How do you handle these? One way to do this in VR is through a very finely tuned illusion of freedom. Virtually transport the user to another place, and let them think it's a real location, where they can do anything, and then ever so gently guide them to do exactly what you want them to do through small cues, hints, and nudges. This is something the Oculus Quest flagship experience Vader Immortal does remarkably well, and I'll detail a few beats they hit in Episode 1 here.
spoiler alert: I'm going to break down some of the interactions in the experience in detail from a VR user experience point of view. This WILL include spoilers. If you are a major Star Wars fan and have any plan on playing through this experience go and do so first. I'll wait!
Vader Immortal: A Start Wars VR Series
Story Is King
Just like any good theme park ride or show, every bit of this experience is about story, down to the smallest bit of set dressing. If you have even a passing familiarity with Star Wars you'll feel like you know this place even though we've never seen a ship like the one you start off in. Here, the ship has been designed entirely with VR in mind. You begin in a standing cockpit with a full floor to ceiling windshield in front of you offering a view of the starry abyss (which is perfect, since the designers intend for you to play through this while standing up). There's no doubt though, this experience is not a game. It’s an interactive narrative from beginning to end. Even though it has very fun elements, some of which are even quite action driven, every part of it exists to further your immersion in, and understanding of, the story. (Sorry in advance, but I’m not going to talk about the lightsaber parts, as cool as they are.)
Takeaway: Make sure everything in the world feels like it belongs there, and fits into the story you are trying to tell. In VR, a user leaves with fairly realistic memories of the events they've experienced, rather than remembering "playing a game."
Easing You In
This experience does a fantastic job of guiding with the environment and once you have your bearings it takes off the training wheels. With a few bits of UI showing the controllers in your hands it asks you to flip switches and push the throttle to engage hyperdrive to get the story moving. After that the lights in the back of your vessel flicker on and you have a bit of a playground to get used to everything from how to move to picking up and throwing objects. There is wonderfully synced voice-over from your Sassy Droid Companion (SDC) telling you the backstory of each item you pick up and where it came from which helps you really sink further into the story and the environment before any action happens. An added benefit to VR over other interactive media, is that the designer knows exactly what the user is doing at every moment: what they're holding, what they're looking at, and how they're moving.
Takeaway: Don't assume the user will know exactly how this world works. Ease them in with a little guidance but don't beat them over the head with tutorials if it can be avoided.
Beam Me Up
Teleporting in this game handles like a dream. It assists you in getting to where you need to go without feeling in the way (or like it's the only way to move around). While the "casting" mechanism of teleporting is nothing new in VR, it's executed nearly flawlessly in Vader Immortal. As soon as you push the analog stick you see a pointer begin to extend a short way from your hand that you'll use to aim your teleport. This short beam is color-coded to give you an idea of what you can and can't do. If your arc would land you somewhere you can't go, the arc simply isn't drawn and the beam is gray. If your arc would land you on another character or another inaccessible area it glows red. If you can teleport to your desired location it turns blue and completes the arc, ending with a rotation specific landing pad (which nicely locks to certain locations for interacting with panels, pedestals, and other times when there's clearly an "optimal destination".
Takeaway: Locomotion (how you move) is a seriously important part of the VR design process to get right. Pick a method that helps ensure the feeling you want the user to have.
Teleporting is all well and good, but sometimes to really get the feeling of the story it wants you to really move, yes, in real space, with your feet. There's a particular moment where you're walking along a thin ledge (over a rather nasty drop) and reach a spot where you must edge your way around a pillar to get to the other side. That, however, would be scary, so we’ll just teleport across... oh wait, it won't let you teleport past it no matter what you try. You MUST walk across it in room-scale space, whether you like it or not. This story very much wants you to experience the important parts in a certain way before you get through it, and it will resort to force if it must.
Takeaway: Enabling and disabling certain abilities can help instill a strong sense of place the user has, reminding them that they are perhaps vulnerable on one hand, or nearly godlike on the other. Do however keep in mind the accessibility decisions you make when implementing these types of mechanics.
Climbing the walls
Thus far in Vader Immortal, for movement, we can teleport, we can actually walk on the ground, elevators are provided, and stairs are not present (no great way to mimic that in VR yet since normally foot trackers aren't present) but there's another way to get around in this world - climbing! The climbing in this experience feels amazing. The motion is tracked really well and the hand animations follow just how you’d imagine grabbing onto whatever you’re climbing. The experience gradually increases your climbing skills from simple ladders to sideways shimmying pipe to pipe high above the molten hellscape of Mustafar. However, there is one trick the experience pulls on the user which I didn’t expect. Even if you climb perfectly, one of the last pipes breaks, and you have to experience a moment of terror where you're sure you're falling for real. After briefly realizing you're still on solid ground in real life, your Sassy Droid Companion offers you her hand, and you must take it to reach the next area, furthering the bond of trust you have with her.
Takeaway: Surprise doesn't have to be about jump scares. You can show a user how real something is and then make it do something they didn't know it could do to get a real reaction. Just use sparingly.
Please keep head and hands in the experience at all times.
There is often one major issue that comes with room-scale VR experiences (ok, there are a lot but we'll dive into a specific one here). If you move your body somewhere that your digital avatar can't or shouldn’t go, you're going to have a bad time. Walking through walls and hovering over pits of fire would cause some seriously nasty cognitive dissonance (trust me, I've melted through a hill in VR during an experiment gone awry and nearly thrown up). To combat this, Vader Immortal does something I'll absolutely be using in future experiences: If you go where you shouldn't, the screen darkens and you get a message telling you to go back to the play area and an arrow pointing the way. This seems like a simple thing, but simply putting in that boundary keeps the user from having an experience-breaking incident.
Takeaway: If you're building a room-scale experience, have a plan in place for if the user moves somewhere in physical space that correlates to a bad location for their digital self.
VR Creates Memories
Each of these moments I’ve described serves a couple of purposes. Firstly they make the experience ultra-playable so that every user has the best time possible. Secondly, and more importantly for our discussion here, is that it they happen so naturally that with each one you embody the character a little more, slowly making their story your story. When you take off the headset, you'll remember what happened in the story as if it were a real memory of a place you'd explored, of discussions you'd had, of puzzles you'd solved, and battles you think you'll have to fight in the future.