Design Virtual Reality for Everyone

Gamers are the early adopters of VR: they crave visceral action and reflex demanding immersion. They want thrills and blood pumping excitement. The early focus of virtual reality developers has been on existing gamers, but there is enormous untapped potential by appealing to a wider audience.

Video games are a subset of interactive experiences, and yet the focus of VR development has been on creating immersive versions of existing game genres.

Immersive experiences can be so much more.

When creators step beyond traditional games, and begin to explore the full breadth of interactive experiences possible within VR, the medium will explode.

Superhot VR, an action game critically acclaimed as one of the best VR games

Digital social interaction is better in Virtual Reality

Henry by Oculus Story Studio
Humans are social, and our entertainment reflects that. Movies and books are immensely popular as a way to observe the emotions and interactions of others, however games have always struggled to convey emotional experiences. The promise of interactivity, the strength of the medium, has served as a frustrating barrier to convincing human interaction. Crafting a socially interesting narrative is difficult when faced with also presenting sufficiently interactive choices. Games cannot always convince the player that they are their avatar — with constrained choice it is difficult to make the player feel as if they have enough to express themselves. The best parts of game narrative are those parts that feel like movies or books, with few notable exceptions.

Immersive games, as virtual reality or augmented reality, have the power to overcome those hurdles. In an immersive experience, you are your avatar, and you can’t escape the narrative’s emotion. When a character expresses disappointment in you they are disappointed in you, not your avatar. Movies and books can show emotions, but in virtual reality those emotions can become yours.

In an immersive environment your choice is your own. Through motion and voice controls you are given the tools to be your own character. As voice recognition and speech cognition improve immersive experiences will feature characters that can respond to whatever you care to say. Some players will take their virtual experiences seriously while others will spout silly nonsense they would never feel comfortable saying in the real world.

The Sims: An early pioneer in social gameplay
Doll house games, like the Sims, are popular because people love to set the stage for emotions and conflict. When people are given the opportunity to be an actress or observer in a fully interactive social play they will clamor for more. A player will be on the set of a sitcom where they can say whatever they please and the other characters respond as if the player is the star of the show. Social environments become a play space where one can say the things they imagine they would say in the real world but do not feel comfortable saying. Social environments will become a setting for play. A game like the Sims, but for virtual reality, could become one of the defining games of future generations.

Traditionally gamers have not been into this sort of “social game”, but for many people the opportunity to feel as if they are part of interesting social environments is something they would absolutely love to play. People want to partake in experiences they’ve always wondered about but have not experienced in their own life, and to the human mind social interaction is the most captivating material.

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash
As an example, many people may want to play an experience where they can socialize in a coffee shop. The pleasure of carefully preparing a coffee and then asking someone about their day while handing them a drink may be just as engaging as dodging bullets while killing robots.

An immersive coffee shop game where you speak with customers and design your own coffee shop may be the killer app for many people, and yet this sort of game is barely considered if you look at what’s available for virtual reality right now.

Job Simulator by Owlchemy Labs

Virtual reality is the ultimate role-playing medium

When I watch friends and family play the cooking part of Job Simulator I notice many seem to enjoy the creative act of assembling a meal, and many people took the task more seriously than the cartoony context called for.

“Roleplaying” is an inherent part of childhood. For competitive children they’ll often pretend to be various figures from combat scenarios. Other children pretend to be teachers, cooks, or more social roles. The desire to act out something else never really goes away into our older years, but for most teenagers and adults there is no outlet for this desire. Games are the ultimate pretending medium, and yet so far they’ve mostly served those who thrive on competitive emotions. In part this is due to the momentum of video games as a medium towards competitive action games, but it’s also because there previously was no medium with adequate roleplaying potential.

Virtual reality, with motion controllers, allows people to interact fluidly with their environment. Curiosity and expression becomes unbounded when you can pick up and play with anything. Immersive mediums can escape that video game feeling of seeing an obvious option and being frustrated when it is denied to you. When virtual environments are creative sandboxes play becomes richer and people find a way to create fun for themselves. Virtual reality is the perfect medium for “sandbox” play, as demonstrated by Job Simulator.

Everest VR, experience climbing Mount Everest
Immersive roleplaying experiences can take on the form of the social experiences described above, but they also be can be about situations people do not experience in their day to day lives. People are inherently curious about other people and virtual reality has the potential to allow others to experience a glimpse of what other people experience. Become a firefighter, or a medic in a war, take the first steps onto the moon as Neil Armstrong, or be aboard a seafaring ship from the past as a new island is discovered. Virtual reality stands to create a rich experiential tapestry where anyone can find something to interest them.

How do we get there?

Virtual reality is a growing medium, and it’s not cheap enough or accessible enough for people without passionate interest to get involved. Gamers are a passionate audience, and they are the audience that is there now. However, as the medium grows others will begin to take interest, and if they see only hardcore shooting games some will be turned away. When virtual reality is more accessible the first few developers that create immersive roleplaying social experiences will find themselves a small but passionate audience. As more games draw in non-gamer sorts into virtual reality the audience will explode and these sort of experiences will become plentiful.

However, there also needs to be people who want to make this sort of interactive experience. These “games” cannot just take from the games before them, they need fresh ideas and perspectives. Virtual reality as a medium has very much sprouted out of gaming, but for it to bloom into its full potential people with varying backgrounds and perspectives will need to have the ability to help lead creative endeavours. Diversity of perspective will be so much more important when designing these new experiences. It is necessary for people of various backgrounds and professions to come together to create the immersive interactive experiences of the future.

The future is bright. There is limitless untapped potential to this new medium and I am terribly excited to see what happens next.