Matters of immersion

For the fall semester, development of the Uncle Sam Plantation experience is somewhat limited, since we’re missing our 3D artist and historical expert. Without them, my development goals for the semester are to become familiar with the programming tools necessary to build the project (VRTK and Unity) and implement a tutorial room which we can insert before the main experience. If I have extra time, it would be nice to start implementing some mock ups for the whole experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as far I had hoped in the first half of the semester. Originally, I intended to have a simple prototype for a tutorial room before fall break, but spent most of my time so far getting an experience David built on Steam VR to work on Oculus and integrating our Unity projects with GitHub. However, I’ve learned a lot about designing in VR space and know what to focus on for the next half of the semester.

During the first half of the semester, I transitioned from thinking about traditional game design to design in a VR environment. My background is in computer science and I learn about game design as a hobby, so I’m familiar with a variety of design conventions in more conventional mediums. I recognized that the considerations that went into designing VR would be different, but until I actually sat down with some VR experiences, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. So far, I’ve learned that immersion is a central consideration to VR design and that lining up real-world and virtual spaces is a major challenge that feeds into immersion.

Matters of immersion come down to fulfilling player expectations of how the world works. Since virtual space is so similar to physical reality, players bring in established expectations. Some of these expectations are at the level of instinct. For example, our bodies “know” how perspective is supposed to shift when we raise and lower our head. When expectations are violated, immersion breaks. While maintaining immersion does not guarantee a great experience, breaking immersion is certain to lower the quality of the experience.

Aligning virtual and physical spaces is difficult because the virtual worlds the player is given to navigate are almost always larger than literal physical space the player is playing in. In line with the need to maintain immersion, the player needs a way to navigate spaces that feels natural or a compelling reason not to want to leave the space defined by their virtual environment. Given a small VR setup, walking from place to place in-experience is rarely a viable option – running into the physical boundaries of their space is a great way to break immersion.

For the next half of the semester, I will be focusing on assembling and testing a tutorial space. In particularly, I would like to test different methods of navigating virtual spaces to find something that complements our project. The tutorial will be the place where we establish player expectations for how the virtual world behaves and how they get feedback for their actions. Beyond the tutorial, we need to find meaningful ways for the player to interact with the environment; we are trying to build an interactive experience, after all. The challenge is in turning the limited set of gross motor actions that the VR remotes allow into a set of easy-to-comprehend, meaningful actions.

Author: Zachary Segall

Zachary Segall ‘18 is a Math and Computer Science double major with a Policy Studies concentration. The Unity developer and C# programmer for the Uncle Sam Plantation project, he is interested in the intersections of technology, psychology, and social issues.

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