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    Addressing Fear and Creating Proximity in Virtual Reality

    This article is a follow up to our last piece about Creating User-Interfaces for Virtual Reality and the difficulties in designing for a wholly new platform.

    Andy Stone Partner at Emerson Stone

    A few months ago, I was hiking in the mountains outside of town. It was late afternoon and I came up to an overlook of the valley below. I was alone at the time, taking in the view with nothing but the sound of the wind going through the trees. While still lost in the moment, I heard a loud crack of a branch behind me and then something started running towards my direction. I turned around to see a figure, taller than me, lunge forward and grab ahold of my shirt. I yelled. I almost fell to the ground before pulling off the headset, ripping out the headphones, and opening my eyes to see our office walls and a screen with the rough approximation of my virtual world. 

    Adrenaline shot through my body and I didn’t yet have the wherewithal to laugh and understand the demo I had just experienced — I was absolutely terrified and still trying to process the whole scene.
    That game demo was the first time I understood how fear works in virtual reality. I had read a number of articles about psychologists using virtual reality to treat patients’ phobias and help veterans work through post-traumatic stress, but I only understood it on an academic level. Walking through the constructed vistas and experiencing the demo was different than any horror from cinema, books or video games. The monster wasn’t an abstract concept or something housed within a two-dimensional screen. It felt like a living, breathing creature that could do physical harm. In designing virtual spaces, there are many things  that can make people afraid or uncomfortable—a terrifying monster, a long fall, or even just an interface that is too close. 

    The standards created over the last thirty years for two-dimensional screen design are not enough to encapsulate everything that is possible within virtual reality; at best they are a starting point for the aesthetic decisions. As designers, we must take special care to consider the emotional connection of games, applications and demos within virtual spaces. In addition to dealing with a user’s specific phobias, we must also consider the scale and proximity of regular objects to create a fully convincing world. Objects that are too close can intimidate users and dominate a scene while objects that are too distant can be ignored by users or ruin the immersive experience.

    Addressing Fear

    For everyone who has experienced immersive virtual reality on the Oculus Rift or Vive, the worlds are more felt than just seen. This is amazing for entertainment or educational content as the viewer is able to connect in ways that were never possible before. This connection with the content is what makes horror games so terrifying. It makes the monsters real. 

    When the field of view is taken up with a virtual world, even the mundane can become scary or create a feeling of discomfort. As VR engulfs the senses of sight and sound, the mind attempts to understand and categorize everything within the experience—what is behind the door, how large is the world, what is different about the world. 

    Perhaps the biggest challenge for the mind is the experience of trying to understand its “missing body.” This loss of self within the virtual world is often cited as the primary disconnect that heightens the discomfort or breaks the immersion of the application. In looking at games specifically, there are a few “seated” experiences that try to rectify this uncomfortable experience using a simulacrum of the body for a user. 

    Users could not focus on navigational tasks when there were dark areas around them, no matter the distance.

    When a user’s whole view is a virtual space, small incongruencies like a dark area within an otherwise bright and welcoming interface can ruin the entire experience by creating unnecessary fear. Through testing different designs at Emerson Stone, dark elements within the user interface were immediately proven to be harmful to the overall experience of a rather standard app. Users could not focus on navigational tasks when there were dark areas around them, no matter the distance. It is worth noting that this was the only tested area where distance did not have an effect on usability.

    This increased likelihood of inducing fear may lead us to reconsider how we rate virtual experiences differently from cinema and video games. In particular experiences, M for Mature and R for Restricted might not cover the gamut of what is possible within virtual reality. When the viewer is so wholly immersed within an experience, it is difficult to distinguish what is real, what is possible or even what is appropriate.


    Users will be overwhelmed when the interface is too close

    Creating Proximity

    In usability tests across different virtual reality experiences, including a game, an architectural viewer, and a music festival app, the size and scale of the interface played a critical role in a user’s understanding and interactions. 

    When the interface was too large, or too close, users strained to pull away from the objects instead of interacting with them. Large interfaces establish dominance within a space but do not make users feel comfortable or safe within the environment. Close interfaces invade user’s personal space and crowd out the area where interaction is natural for most people. 

    In a different test of scale and proximity, three screens were created to display information. They were all the same size relative to the distance from the user—one foot wide at one foot away, ten feet wide at ten feet away, and one-hundred feet wide at one-hundred feet away. The closest interface made users pull back to get a more natural view of the object, and the IMAX-inspired interface did not encourage any interaction from the user after an initial glance. Only the interface at ten feet away invited interaction and a comfortable viewing distance for the user. 


    Users cannot interact when the interface is too far away

    Along with the interaction tests involving scale, tests with phobia-inducing animals or uncomfortable situations validated a similar “golden rule” around distance. When a snake is twenty-to-thirty feet from the user, there is little threat to one’s self or well being. It is only when the snake crosses closer than about ten feet that the user takes notice and begins to follow the snake, interact with its movements, and believe in the virtual experience. Once the snake gets within a foot, it’s time to take the headset off for the night. 

    These early experiments around fear and proximity should be considered when creating any game, application or 360° experience. They will make games more immersive, applications more engaging and videos more capable of creating empathy. As designers, consider the scale and the proximity to users as many of the standards from two-dimensional screen design must be reevaluated and expanded to create meaningful content for these virtual worlds. 

    The promises of virtual reality are seemingly endless, from creating empathy to exploring wholly new worlds. As we consider these futures, we must also consider our responsibility to create positive experiences for users. If virtual reality delivers on its ability to let us experience new places, let’s all make sure it’s somewhere we want to visit.

    Andy Stone Partner at Emerson Stone
    Andy is one of three partners at the design agency Emerson Stone in Boulder, Colorado. Over the last decade, he’s led projects in print and digital design for both startups and national brands, including Adobe, Polaroid and Travel Channel.