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.