We decided we could take Virtual Reality one step further and put even more emphasis on the reality.
While Virtual Reality might offer a mind-bending experience the first couple of times you try it, users can quickly become detached and aware of the abstract nature of
the environment in which they are interacting in. Can we make it even more realistic?
So, we set out to explore the implications of blending physical elements into a virtual environment, and whether this would enhance the overall experience of Virtual Reality. How does it feel to interact with both physical and digital artifacts at the same time?
Game Ideation and Conceptualization, User Experience, Character 3D-Modeling, Animation, Sound Design, Playtesting, Music Composing.
The Process & Findings
We decided that the best way to implement physical elements would be in a horror game context. By designing a virtual game environment in which the player had to perform simple puzzles and various tasks to make progress, we had the perfect platform to test our idea. Our thoughts were that the player should have to manipulate physical/digital objects in the game to be able to solve some of these puzzles.
Why horror, you ask? One simple reason: it was perfect. While exploiting Virtual Reality's added dimension of immersion by the fact that the player has to wear this huge headset that's shielding them from the outside world, the scary-ness (yes, that's a real word) would increase exponentially with the amount of realism we added to the game by implementing physical objects.
The team started by deciding on which physical objects would be optimal to implement. We decided on two things: a box and a step ladder. The player should then have to actually move the box in order to be able to hide behind it (since a really scary forest-monster obviously would emerge from the closet at the most inopportune times). The player then had to put the box in a strategic place to be able to hide behind it and keep the monster from discovering (and murdering) them. While playtesting, we acknowledged the fact that test subjects seemed to think that the interaction felt "natural" and "very realistic". In a way, we blurred the border between virtual and physical. We also chose to make the room just as big enough for the player to move around in it freely without having to do that pesky "teleportation" thing that most VR games have.
The step ladder enables the player to be able to reach things in high places, in this case to find some batteries on the top shelf to be able to assemble a flashlight. From testing this interaction, we found that several test subjects felt uneasy climbing the step ladder. We believe that a partial reason for this is due to the fact that we need to see our feet. Somaesthetic awareness only goes so far: we need visual representation of the actual points of contact (in this case, the feet) to be able to feel perfectly comfortable performing that specific task.
We implemented other interactions as well: one puzzle was solved by gathering parts and assembling a flashlight. The player then had to unscrew the bottom cap of the virtual flashlight, by doing a grabbing-and-twisting motion, just like we do in real life. Feedback was provided in form of slight vibrations during the twisting motion. However, some players struggled with this interaction, claiming they "didn't think it was going to be that intuitive". Another neat interaction of ours was pulling out the drawers of a desk, which players claimed felt "really cool".
Conclusion & Reflections
I had a blast working with both Virtual Reality and horror games, which happens to be a passion of mine. What's great is that things worked out the way they did; adding physical objects to a virtual environment really did make things feel more realistic. While playing VR games, things tend to get too abstract after a while. You need something to convince you that "this is real", even though it's not.