Virtual Reality - without the hype

I had my first "VR" experience back in the early 90s with the Virtuality system down at the Trocadero in London, and then built my own first "virtual world" using VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) around 1996. As the first on-line 3D virtual worlds game on-stream in the late 90s I started spending time in ActiveWorlds, then There.com and finally by the early 2000s Second Life. From 2006 onwards Daden delivered a wide variety of projects to commercial clients in Second Life, and then from about 2012 also in Unity. We got Oculus DK1 when it came out, and added HMD-VR solutions to our portfolio. Quite apart from the varied experiences of delivering and using VR the one thing sit has left me with is an absolute conviction that VR is about "presence" not "immersion", and that a Desktop VR experience is just as valid as an HMD-VR one. Ideally the choice of Desktop (or mobile) or Headset should be one the user makes, based on their time, place and context of use, not one dictated by the experience designer.

Here's  quick comparison of the DesktopVR and HMD-VR modes.

DesktopVR

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Desktop VR

Think first person shooter and other games - the user has an ordinary computer/tablet/smartphone but sees a 3D rendered environment which they can explore and interactive with either in third-person mode (so they see their avatar) or in first-person mode.

Pros

  • Almost every learner already has access to a suitable device

  • No issues with nausea

  • Many used to the interaction model from gaming

  • Can do long exercises, from 1 hour to 6 hours or more!

  • Can use anywhere (e.g. on bus, in cafe, on train, on sofa watching TV)

  • Can easily type text for text-chat or to fill out virtual forms

  • Can easily read text on in-world screens

Cons

  • Physical surroundings can distract from what is on the screen

  • Can look away to physical surroundings for support if gets too intense

  • Don't get a good sense of sizes

  • Not as big a Wow factor to engage some users

Head-Mounted Display VR (HMD-VR)

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Head-Mounted Display VR (HMD-VR)

The users uses some form of headset and all they see is what is shown in that headset. The headsets are typically now (2021) 6-DOF (6 degrees of freedom so you can look up/down/around and "peer in"), have room-scale tracking (so you can walk anywhere in your physical space) and are standalone, ie. not tethered to a separate PC.

Pros

  • No risk of distraction

  • Can make experiences VERY visceral - so good if modelling high -stress situations

  • Great if you use a headset for the task in real life (e.g. breathing apparatus)

  • Get a real sense of size and proportion

  • Huge Wow factor to engage users

Cons

  • More expensive than DesktopVR but good HMD-VR starts at only £299 (e.g. Oculus Quest 2)

  • Can cause nausea in some people (we reckon 10-20% of users may have issues)

  • Can cause problems for some glasses wearers

  • People can become disorientated  when they come out after long- immersion, so keep exercises to 20-60 minutes or so - but does depend on the person and experience

  • Since the user can't see the physical world they need to be in a safe and secure space, and probably have a "spotter" to watch them

  • Hard to type for text-chat or NPC avatar interactions - have to use pick-lists until voice good enough

  • Can be hard to read text on in-world screens and displays - particularly in small rooms

It's All About Presence

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As mentioned earlier I firmly believe that VR is all about "presence", and most of the literature seems to bear that out. Presence is about having that feeling of "really" being there, not just looking at pretty graphics but being able to explore and to interact with objects, the environment and other people - i.e. you have agency. That sense of presence is also affected by the degree to which you feel embodied within your avatar (you can control it, and it behaves sensible - whether it looks like you is neither here nor there). When everything comes together you stand the chance of entering a "flow" state, where your interface to the virtual world disappears (i.e. is dealt with by your subconscious) and you just lose yourself in the experience.

Use Cases

These are the main areas which interest me in the use of VR, and where I may be able to help you in your thinking.

DesktopVR

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vLearning and vTraining

VR is an ideal addition to your blended learning and training toolset. VR lets you make "physical" training and learning available 24/7, independent of staff and student location. And unlike most eLearning the experience can be collaborative, with students working together on problems, and can be highly unstructured, encouraging exploration and realistic learning and assessment.

  • Develop spatial skills and build virtual muscle memory

  • Leverage encoding specificity and situated cognition so that knowledge and processes are not only better learnt but also better recalled

  • Reduce cognitive load as what-you-see-is-what-you-get, so the brain can focus on the learning

  • Learn by doing not by watching or reading, but all in a safe-to-fail environment and where you can develop high iterations to cement learning and explore variations

  • Leverage different group dynamics

  • Create "not-possible-in-real-life" experiences 

  • Download my FREE vLearning White Paper

DesktopVR

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Collaboration

We've all had enough Zoom calls during COVID to last us a lifetime. VR provides far richer and more capable environments in which to meet and collaborate. Attendees leave with the sense of having been in the same meeting, at the same place, rather than just another array of faces on the screen.

  • Create spaces (and avatars) that reflect the meeting subject, client or just the mood you want to create

  • Use virtual white-boards, 3D drawing, virtual post-its, 3D models and even scripted collaboration tools

  • Drag in images, documents and videos from your desktop, even share your desktop

  • Collaborative browse the web or use shared tools like Google Docs (even with non-VR participants)

  • Share your webcam if you really need to see "the whites of their eyes"

  • Leverage different group dynamics

DesktopVR

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Data Visualisation

OK, so by plotting data in 3D you get an extra axes on your graph - but it's far more than that. Because you are in amongst the data the research shows that you relate to it in an egocentric way - as you do to the physical world, not an allocentric way - as you do normally to graphs. This makes it easier for you to spot patterns and outliers, giving you fresh insight, and makes it easier to remember the data.

And it not just space, you can play with shape and even sound in ways that just don't work in 2D.

  • Plot data in 3 axes, with multiple 3D shapes, in multiple colours and multiple orientations

  • Plot onto 2D maps or schematics

  • Animate data or just flythrough the data yourself

  • Record video fly-throughs to share with colleagues

  • Display data in near-real time

  • Plot potentially millions of data points - and see them all!

  • Spread network graphs into 3 dimensions to avoid the inevitable birds nest of complex networks

  • Plot data in multi-user spaces so you can explore together with colleagues

  • Download our FREE Immersive 3D Visual Analytics White Paper

DesktopVR

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Virtual Worlds and Social Spaces

For me Virtual Reality and Virtual World are really synonymous. Any VR space which is also not a virtual world seems somehow deficient. Despite some of its bad press Second Life is still be best examplar of a Virtual World - even though it doesn't have any proper HMD-VR support. You enter SL and then just do what you want to do, build and script what you want to build (all in-world), and its all there to share instantly - all just like the physical world.

As a virtual world, rather than just a VR experience the whole social experience is just so different and probably a lot closer to the ultimate "metaverse" experience than most corporates vision of it.

  • Think about whether you can leverage existing social spaces to build your VR project rather than developing yet another walled garden

  • Look at Open Source approaches to virtual worlds such as Open Sim

  • Read about studies into the anthropology and social science of virtual worlds

  • Just go walkabout in a place like Second Life for a while, buy a homestead and start building

  • Look at the online eBook of my Second Life experiences and projects

Can I Help?

Here are some of the services which I can provide to help you make the best of Virtual Reality and Virtual Worlds:

  • Just have a coffee chat to understand what all this is about and how the Metaverse fits in

  • Arrange a demonstration or virtual safari of one or more virtual worlds or VR platforms so you can better understand the different affordances and capabilities

  • Explain the underlying psychology behind VR experiences, and the different pedagogic approaches to using them for training and learning

  • Help you host an initial corporate session in a virtual environment - perhaps as part of a co-design, brainstorming or collaboration exercise

  • Use our Virtual Experience Design Space in DesktopVR and/or HMD-VR to think about a VR project

  • Help you scope an initial VR project for learning, training or collaboration

  • Help in vendor identification and selection

  • Act as you customer friend in implementing a project, helping to interpret the tech talk of the developer, and ensuring that the developer keeps your ultimate goals (and constraints) in mind

More Information

For more information about VR and Virtual Worlds check out: