Virtual Reality - Picking a New User's First Experience
Updated: Jun 28, 2018
Each VR experience acts as a portal into a new world. A user’s first few encounters with this technology should be carefully selected to provide an intuitive and satisfying introduction to this platform. A carefully curated introductory game or experience to VR alongside positive onboarding techniques will improve public perception of virtual reality, encourage early adoption, and correct some of the misinformation surrounding the medium.
Now that you are a Master Guide to VR we’ll be looking at which experiences should be applauded or avoided for a user's first time wearing a headset. I’ll be focusing primarily on the HTC Vive, but I’ll revisit this topic down the road for other headsets. While each experience discussed can be improved with proper onboarding techniques, some experiences should be avoided entirely.
What to Look For
There are a few key traits to look for when identifying great VR experiences to onboard new users with.
Avoids Motion Sickness: We cannot expect users to invest time and energy into a new technology if their first encounter with the platform leaves them queezy. There is a reason why there are stereotypes surrounding motion sickness in VR: It is a very easy to make users sick if an experience has not been designed with modern VR locomotion techniques. Thankfully there are some easy ways to avoid motion sickness, which most decent developers are using. VR design has evolved a lot over the last few years. We now know that the dysphoria is caused by seeing momentum through a head-mounted display (HMD) without our inner ears feeling momentum, which can lead to nausea and simulation sickness. A users first time in VR should avoid motion sickness at all costs if we want to see greater public interest in virtual reality.
Intuitive Interactivity: Wii Sports was a huge success for many reasons, but accessibility was what catapulted it into the second highest selling game of all time. Even grandmas could swing the Wii nunchuck like a tennis racket, or a bowling ball. Therefore, learning from that example, most modern VR experiences should translate real world movements into digital controls. The HTC Vive’s strength is in the user’s ability to interact with virtual worlds. It is important that a first experience shows the difference between a 360° video and the interactions possible with the Vive’s motion controls. A user's first experience should demonstrate the controls and interactions are easily learned - or ideally completely intuitive.
Engaging Experiences: Not all VR Games are made equal. Intuitive interactions ensure the user understands how to explore virtual reality, but engaging experiences are what leave a lasting emotional effect on the user. VR experiences excel at exciting a variety of emotions. For new users, it’s important to offer experiences that offer joy, empowerment, or peaceful satisfaction. This is the first medium in a long time that can evoke the feeling of childlike wonder in a user. There should be a place for the full spectrum of emotions in VR, that explore negative and positive emotions especially in narrative focused experiences, but these are best avoided for a user’s first time to avoid alienating them from VR.
I will be giving experiences a score based on how well they excel at each of the above traits. When deciding which experiences to demo, it is important to consider onboarding, the order in which you demo experiences, and user demographics.
Richie's Plank Experience Developers - Toast Platforms - HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Launch Date - 19 September, 2016 (Early Access)
In it’s current form on Early Access, Richie’s Plank Experience, has several gameplay modes. Plank Walk has players walk along a small plank suspended 160m in the air. Sky Brush gives the players handheld jet thrusters they can use to propel themselves through the sky that leaves a colorful smoke trail in their wake. Lastly, Fire Deck has the user rocket around the city putting out fires with a hose.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Poor This is the cause of many of the “People with VR fall down and get hurt on Youtube” videos. While falling in every gameplay mode is traumatic, two of the three gameplay modes locomotion system, flying, is dull at best and nauseating at worst. The only reason this isn’t rated as Terrible is because the Roomscale setup for the Plank Walk game mode is serviceable.
Intuitive Interactivity: Terrible It’s not super clear what to do here. An operator can spawn various objects on the plank to encourage or terrify the user. The game also struggles to correctly size the plank to fit inside roomscale boundaries without a bit of customization on the operator's end. This adds to the initial setup time. When the main interaction is walking, the possibility of walking into a wall using default settings may not be worth it. The flying portion of the game has intuitive controls but this is made irrelevant by the nauseating horror of flying.
Engaging Experiences: Poor This can be pretty cool if you design a physical space for the experience - complete with plank, set up time, and an operator on standby. Is all that worth the risk of potentially scarring a user? If you’re trying to improve public perception of VR, maybe not.
The Lab: Aperture Robot Repair Developers - Valve Platforms - HTC Vive
Launch Date - 5 Apr, 2016
Robot Repair is a lightly interactive cinematic experience where the user is tasked with teleporting around a room and opening drawers, pulling levers, and repairing a robot. Spoiler Alert: It’s impossible to repair the robot. (I’ve tried!) This well-made experience, however, has a few flaws that helped me decide to pull it from my demo rotation.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Good The gameplay room is big enough to require teleportation, but small enough that walking within roomscale bounderies also feels natural. When the walls of the room are removed to reveal a giant factory, there are a few small moments where players may feel slightly disorientated. The nature of the game means there is not enough locomotion to incite motion sickness.
Intuitive Interactivity: Good There’s no in-game tutorial for control schemes. The only controls required are touchpad and trigger. If the user can figure this out then the rest of the actions are pretty self-explanatory. Mostly simple grabbing and pulling.
Engaging Experiences: Mediocre Many users can become confused about the in-game voice commands. And several users have gotten flustered from being insulted/made fun of by the robot narrator and GLaDOS. There are a few breathtaking moments during the robot repair ‘room reassembly’ and the appearance of GLaDOS, a large robot from the Portal series, but the rest of the interactions are forgettable.
The experience concludes with the new room that has been built around the player collapses as spikes crush the player. This happens so quickly that several users simply aren’t looking the right direction. This transition cutting to black is an anticlimactic end for many users.
Developers - WeVr Inc. Platforms - HTC Vive & Oculus
Launch Date - 5 April, 2016
TheBlu is a collection of award winning immersive experiences that allow users to see the worlds below the waves, and is applauded by critics and users alike. This was one of the earliest critically acclaimed VR experiences. Let’s see how it matches up with our key traits.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Great! The user is locked to a roomscale sized stationary platform for each experience in TheBlu. This experience can be played seated, standing, or in roomscale space without any issues.
Intuitive Interactivity: Mediocre I’ve been told you can gently interact with the fish. They’re supposed to swim away if you swat at them or put your face too close, but the fish aren’t very responsive. Many users aren’t sure if they can or can’t interact with the environment. Proactive onboarding will ensure users know this is more of a sit back and relax experience more than a ‘game.’
Engaging Experiences: Mixed Bag TheBlu is undoubtedly a visually stunning experience but it walks a razor's edge between serenity and terror. Many users quickly lose themselves in the tranquility of whale song, while others turn around after playing with the fish to see an gigantic creature staring down at them through murky waters.
TheBlu is beautiful and relaxing when the users expectations are adjusted expect a tranquil glorified 360 video. If a user’s first and only experience in VR is TheBlu however, they will have no idea how immersive and interactive modern virtual reality can be!
Developers - Google Platforms - HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Launch Date - 5 April, 2016
Tilt Brush was developed by Google as a 3D illustration tool. The user can paint in three-dimensions and explore a range of textures and visual effects unique to this medium. I’ve seen Tilt Brush demoed far and wide. While it can provide a strong first impression, the user typically needs a bit of onboarding and support to thrive.
Avoid Motion Sickness: Great! Not to sound like a broken record, but there's no motion sickness to be found here. Tilt Brush is designed to accommodate sitting, standing and roomscale play.
Intuitive Interactivity: Good Do not be misled by the trailer. Tilt Brush is a unique and intuitive art creation tool, but I have not seen anyone make anything half as pretty as what is in the Tilt Brush trailer on their first time. As far as VR user interface goes, the menus in Tilt Brush are pretty good. Technical literacy is required to purposefully navigate the various symbols and tools however. Grandma might know how to paint, but she ain't no photoshop pro! It can be a challenge for less proficient users to make sense of a dozen new icons while trying VR for the first time.
Engaging Experiences: Mixed Bag For many adults, our brains have been hardwired to understand and communicate through two-dimensional interfaces. This can curse our early endeavors in Tilt Brush to look brilliant from one angle and devolve into laser spaghetti from another. In public demos the user can feel a sense of pressure to create something nice their first time. When I demoed Tilt Brush to about thirty kids, I ended up with twenty virtual trees and ten virtual suns.
Tilt Brush can make a strong first impression, but it isn’t a great first experience for many demographics. Strange social pressure can inspire creative block for artistic or young users during public demos. I’m still trying different techniques to onboard specifically for Tilt Brush but this is definitely a mixed bag. Dropping the user in with no explanation can lead to confusion, so Tilt Brush should be coupled with hands-on support. For best results, encourage users to try to create an object to channel their creativity.
The Lab: Longbow
Developers - Valve Platforms - HTC Vive
Launch Date - 5 Apr, 2016
Longbow is an excellent archery game for the HTC Vive. The cartoony aesthetic makes it approachable for all ages, and the gameplay is intuitive. It is easy for players to lose themselves in the game.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Great! Once the player is on the guard tower they won’t need teleportation at all. The stationary position works well in roomscale. No nausea here!
Intuitive Interactivity: Good The only drawback to this experience is when the user is dropped into the game they still need to teleport up to a table before being shrunk down and placed on top of the guard tower. This means that new users need a bit of assistance to get started. From the guard tower, most players can quickly figure out how to notch and shoot the bow. The subtle rumble in the Vive controllers gives the sensation of pulling a taut bowstring back. There are several intuitive, but subtle, gems in the game as well. Holding an arrow above a torch sets it on fire. Shooting an enemy’s helmet will knock off their armor. A burning arrow will destroy an enemy’s shield, and shooting various objects in the environment will reward the player with beneficial explosions, tar traps, and more!
Engaging Experiences: Great This game is empowering. A variety of user demographics and skill levels enjoy Longbow. The audio-visual element, combined with the tactile rumble of the controllers, allows the user to lose themself in the experience. The physical ballet of shooting a bow is also entertaining for demo observers. This can be a fun social experience with nearby friends announcing flanks and opportunities to hit explosive barrels. As a VR Guide, a bit of onboarding really makes this game shine!
Space Pirate Trainer
Developers - I-Illusions Platforms - HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Launch Date - 5 April, 2016 (Early Access)
Space Pirate Simulator is a classic VR arcade shooter. Players stand their ground to fight off waves of flying drones with a variety of guns and a shield. Each wave of enemies is short, punchy, and satisfying.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Great! This experience keeps you confined to a small platform. This is great for standing and roomscale play. I wouldn’t recommend playing this seated.
Intuitive Interactivity: Great! The HTC Vive controllers translate into intuitive guns. The controller’s weight, grips and trigger accurately capture the weight and feel of sci-fi guns. Ducking and diving between incoming enemy fire feels very natural. Most gamers will immediately understand the game. Non-gamers may roll their eyes, but it’s difficult to misread the gameplay or controls.
Engaging Experiences: Good I’m hesitant to encourage this as a first demo for every user demographic, but this arcade shooter is an empowering and exciting introduction to the video game side of VR.
This is a pretty solid go-to when considering first experiences for new users. I personally try to avoid super game-y style experiences when introducing users to the HTC Vive. I think it’s important to showcase a variety of experiences. If you’re coupling this with a diversity of other demos, then this is an auto-include.
The Lab: Vesper Peak Developers - Valve Platforms - HTC Vive
Launch Date - 5 Apr, 2016
An experience packaged in Valve’s The Lab, Vesper Peak is the best of their ‘Postcards’ tourist experiences. On Vesper Peak you can look over the mountains, valleys, and hidden lakes of Washington. The whole environment has been digitally captures and constructed using photogrammetry methods. You are also accompanied by a small robot dog, which can be an create an immensely powerful social and emotional bond within a Virtual Reality experience.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Great! The lack of locomotion diversity is offset by the ease and intuitive teleportation. The user can teleport to little markers scattered around the rugged peak. Each location is designed to feel natural in roomscale.
Intuitive Interactivity: Great! There’s no in-game tutorial, but the interactions are so basic that so long as the user can use the trigger and touchpad it’s pretty self explanatory. Throwing sticks for the robot dog to fetch, and rubbing your little companion are intuitive. Even without touching any buttons, simply looking around and tickling the dog is silly and engaging.
Engaging Experiences: Great! When the user discovers the hidden lake on the north side of the peak there’s a moment of awe, this coupled with the simple joy of playing with the robot dog makes this an ideal introductory experience.
Unlike the other Postcard experiences, Vesper Peak allows the exploration, stunning views, with an adorable robot dog to play with. The other Postcard experiences; Venice, Lava Tube, and Snaefellsjoekull National Park are all high quality, but don’t excel the same way Vesper Peak does.
Developers - Owlchemy Labs Platforms - HTC Vive, Oculus Touch, and PS VR
Launch Date - 5 April, 2016
Job Simulator is a comedic simulation game. Users can pick one of four jobs to simulate; Gourmet Chef, Office Worker, Convenience Store Clerk, and Automotive Mechanic. This is a strong game to Demo as it ticks each of our boxes.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Great! This is a VR classic for a reason. The playspace is scaled dynamically in-game to the size of the roomscale setup. This is a brilliant solution for a game without locomotion.
Intuitive Interactivity: Great! On the upside, once the player figures out how to grab and drop objects the experience becomes very intuitive. The minimal downside is that the diversity of gameplay interactions can be a bit disorienting for the uninitiated.
Engaging Experiences: Great! Job Simulator knows when to work with player intuition and when to defy expectations. The comedy in this game can create some truly memorable moments for the player. Best of all, this game more than others allows for social participation from observers. Figuring out how to start the computer or debating what ingredients to make a soup with in a social setting is goofy and memorable.
As much as Job Simulator excels, it can be a bit overwhelming for some users. This is a great experience to demo, but I try to position it towards the end of a series of demos. There is so much going on in the game it can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. Job Simulator demands the player use the controllers as an extension of their hands.
A common mistake is allowing users to boot into the game from the beginning. While the main menu is intuitive, it can be difficult to talk the user through selecting a Job and determining the difficulty, AKA what level of complexity they will start with.
Gnomes & Goblins (The Preview)
Developers - WeVr Inc. Platforms - HTC Vive
Launch Date - 8 September, 2016 (Early Access)
Gnomes & Goblins (The Preview) is short, sweet, and simple. This experience is still waiting for a full release but what they have so far is stunning. WeVr Inc, the creators of TheBlu have refined the visual narrative format. Interacting with the goblins is intuitive and cute in all the right ways.
Avoids Motion Sickness: Great! The player is confined so a small thicket of trees. From here they can navigate the space in roomscale.
Intuitive Interactivity: Great! The experience's core gameplay elements involve sticking your head inside trees and grabbing small objects. Most users can handle the experience because the controls are restricted to the trigger and motion gestures.
Engaging Experiences: Great! The stunning environment encourages curiosity until they spot one of the tiny goblins hiding next to a log or sneaking through some tall grass. An immediate "Ah-ha!" moment occurs when the player tosses one of the goblins an acorn. The goblin will eye the user nervously before grabbing the nut and running away. This eye contact along with the seamless animation and adorable character design creates an empathic link with these creatures.
Gnomes & Goblins is a phenomenal introduction to virtual reality. It provides a compelling and engaging experience in a very short time span. Without game elements or intensity it is approachable for nearly everyone. This experience fits in the same category as The Lab: Vesper Peak, The Lab: Robot Repair, and TheBlu. It is the pinnacle of this new interactive, exploratory cinema genre.
VR enthusiasts play a vital role in the shift in perception of this medium. Virtual Reality has come and gone several times throughout the years due to in part to its hardware limitations. That stigma combined with early follies in modern user experience design needs to be overcome for this platform to reach wider audiences and to really thrive.
By becoming a Master Guide to VR and choosing a user’s first VR experience wisely, we can set a strong precedent for the potential and future of the medium. Choosing an introductory experience that avoids motion sickness, and uses intuitive interactions to create engaging experiences goes a long way towards turning first-time users into VR advocates.
While this blog will quickly become outdated as new experiences are released, and we discover new design techniques to improve the medium, the principles herein should withstand the rapid evolution of VR. As you continue introducing user’s to virtual reality consider which experiences pass these filters. With a bit of onboarding thrown into the mix, we can share our virtual worlds with the real world.