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Ten Do's and Don'ts to Improve Comfort in VR

Comfort is an entirely new field of user experience that is emerging in VR. Does it have a formal definition yet? Here's mine:

VR Comfort refers to the degradation or enhancement of your experience that reduces or eliminates nausea or uncomfortable feelings.

There are two main ways to do this:

  1. Options. Give your users some things to change in the options menu to improve their comfort.
  2. Controls. Add alternate ways to move around or interact so that players can determine which play style is most comfortable for them.

Ok so what are these 10 things that you should think about? If you're like me, you probably skipped down to the bold text- so let's get into it.

1. DO Offer a Blink Mode

If your game or experience has the player moving around in some way beyond the bounds of their current local environment, offering a blink mode is a great way to let players degrade the experience to their own comfort level. What do we mean by blink mode? Essentially it is the elimination of camera movement animation- teleporting the player instantly from one place to another. In tests we've done, we've found that players will not become sick from instant movement. Remember- we have to unlearn a lot of what we've learned with PC game design and consider this new medium. There are some things that won't be readily intuitive to game developers- and having a blink mode is one of them. How can you implement a blink mode? Either put it in the menu of options- or offer it as an alternate control scheme on the controller or keyboard. You could also have a button that toggles blink mode on or off. Or you could do what Cloudhead games does and make it a core part of the gameplay. Check out this video:

2. DON'T Stick a UI on the Player's Face

This has become a best practice that I've seen a number of other developers talk about. Sticking a UI to the player camera creates a very uncomfortable experience for some reason. This probably has to do with the fact that we have no such parallel in the real world. The job of the interface designer is about to get a lot more complicated as we scramble to find ways to show the interface that are anchored to the virtual world in some way. How do persistent displays in VR work? Health? Ammo? Alerts and alarms? All of these need to be thought about carefully when you're building your game. Holographic interfaces within VR seem like a natural fit for this problem. Make the interface transparent and affix it to something in the virtual space and you'll eliminate many of these problems. Have a look at how Tilt Brush handles UI:

3. DO Give players the option to turn on Transparent Skybox Reference Points

A company called Triangular Pixels had a novel way to improve comfort through 'Magic Stability Cubes.' These semi-transparent cubes are placed throughout the skybox and give the player a reference point when there is movement. It would be nice if more games created this kind of option and tucked it away in the comfort options so that players who are more prone to nausea can still experience the game. Have a look:

4. DON'T Move the Player When They Don't Ask you to

Simulator Sickness is a very real thing that was discovered by the US military in the 50's when soldiers tested simulation devices and didn't have the corresponding inner ear movement associated with what they were seeing. There are a lot of things that can cause simulator sickness, but most of the data that's out there seems to point to it being caused by a discrepancy between what your eyes are seeing and what your body is feeling.  Player movement in VR needs to be predictable and player triggered. If a player is standing around and is suddenly moved by the game to some other location- that's going to increase the likelihood of simulator sickness. Come up with clever ways to move the player that are actually triggered by the player.

5. DO Allow Snap Turning

Even though they're not possible in the real world, we've found that snap turns are a fairly comfortable way to turn in VR. Instead of animating the world rotating to the next viewpoint, the player is rotated instantly (or nearly instantly). It's tempting to feel like this may degrade the player's enjoyment of your game, but remember that a comfortable experience should be the highest priority.  Making something like snap turning optional or relegated to buttons on the controller is a great way to give the option to those who want it. Cloudhead Games has a great example video that shows what snap turning looks like:

6. DON'T Force Over the Shoulder Interaction

This advice applies to seated experiences only: Putting essential information over the player's shoulders will greatly decrease comfort- and may actually injure some players who have had neck injuries. Sure, it's fun to put things behind the player, but leave that to non-critical info, or give the player a way to turn around such as snap turns.

7. DO Build for High Performance (And Avoid Judder)

What is "Judder?"Judder is a term that used to only describe a noticeably lower frame rate. It has become commonplace in a VR context to describe the stuttering feeling that happens when the head motion is faster than the computer can render the environment. This feeling is very uncomfortable, breaks immersion, and can even make players feel sick. How to reduce or eliminate judder? Optimization. All of your geometry, textures, programming and animations need to be optimized as much as possible so that there is as little strain on the CPU/GPU as possible.  Build and test for low end machines, and attempt workarounds that reduce the complexity of your scenes without sacrificing graphical quality.

8. DON'T Accelerate the player

Acceleration has a nasty tendency to cause simulator sickness. The inner ear expects movement to occur but the body doesn't feel it. This discrepancy between what the eyes see and what the body feels causes the body to feel as though it's being poisoned- which will result in nausea. To work around this problem- test movement that pushes the player forward instantly at a steady rate. There is still much work to be done in this area as far as testing goes- and I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising developer figures out a way to accelerate a player without making them get sick- but for the time being, try to avoid it whenever possible.

9. DO Put Objects Near the Player

It turns out that having objects near the player provides a point of reference that can greatly reduce nausea. In fact, some researchers have found that putting a digital nose into their VR experience caused a noticeable difference in how long players could play their game. Check out this overview:

10. DON'T Cause Conflicts Between the Player's Body and Their Avatar

It's been said anecdotally that it is actually more comfortable to look down and see no body than to have something strange going on with a virtual body (such as a body that is doing things you're not). The ideal scenario, of course, is to have a body that corresponds to the player's body 1 to 1. But in the absence of that, no body at all may be the most comfortable option.

Bonus: DO Avoid Claustrophobic Environments

Many people deal with real issues like claustrophobia. Try to avoid putting players in that kind of situation unless your game is specific to a genre that encourages discomfort (such as horror). Give your player lots of room to move and look around. Tight spaces could be good from a storytelling standpoint if there is a need to increase tension- but don't leave the player there for too long. Give them a way to get out as fast as possible or at least make the exits clearly visible.

Conclusion

We've still got a long way to go, and Block Interval is hard at work solving these problems for our own games. Hopefully this list has gotten you thinking of ways that you can reduce nausea and improve comfort in your games! See you in the other world.

Daniel Allen is the co-founder of Block Interval and co-creator of the in-development VR game Life of Lon. For more information about the project, check out lifeoflon.com or the VR announcement.

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The Fundamentals of User Experience in Virtual Reality

With the ubiquity of Unity and Unreal being used in traditional game development, it's tempting for experienced devs to say to themselves, 'Why shouldn't I make a VR game?' After all- it's an emerging market and even tired and worn out concepts can become fresh and new when built for VR.

Building for VR is not the same as building for desktop or console gaming though...

There are a lot of really fundamental concepts that change when you move to building for VR. So many, in fact, that no one single article will probably cover them all. But we will attempt to go through some of the biggest considerations that we've learned at Block Interval as we've switched from making desktop games to VR games.

Comfort

This is the one we've spent the most time researching. Comfort is the next evolution of user experience- and any game without comfort options in the menu is going to get a thumbs down from users. Some users have iron stomachs, but some are extremely sensitive to any kind of movement in VR. For those weak stomachs, you will need to provide lots of ways to tweak the experience. For example, providing a way for users to enter 'blink mode' (essentially eliminating the animation between points while moving), will ensure that even the weakest stomachs will be able to play your game. Alternate control schemes, supporting as many input devices as possible, and doing lots and lots of testing will be just some of the ways you can make your players experience more comfortable. Take a look at what Triangular Pixels is doing for their comfort options:

Interface

It's been pointed out time and again but it's worth repeating- we can no longer snap interfaces to the player's face like we did in traditional games. Interfaces now need to exist within the game world or mounted to some kind of external zone rather than the head. Buttons and menus will also need to change to accommodate field of view. For the current generation of VR headsets- resolution is fairly low compared to a PC monitor, so text and buttons also need to be larger and more distinguishable. A lot of other considerations need to be made for interface in VR- and we would highly recommend watching this overview by Mike Alger:

Sound and Music

Positional audio is a huge part of making an experience immersive. Game developers will need to put in extra effort to ensure that the sound and music in their games draw you further into the world. If you just slap music and sound effects into your game with no consideration for the environment they come from- players will feel like they are just playing a desktop game on screens in front of their eyes rather than feeling immersed. The days of one person creating a good game are soon drawing to a close- we will need an army of sound and music professionals to help us build our worlds. Programs like wwise will help us get there.

Movement

Like it or not, VR may just kill WASD movement. Moving a player around is quite a bit more complex in VR because there are no more simulated barriers between the user and the environment (such as a computer monitor). The approach you take to movement will depend greatly on what kind of game you're creating. Games with some kind of ship or car seem to work really well in VR because the environment is moving around the vehicle, whereas making a simulated body doesn't feel as immersive. Do a lot of testing- and don't assume that just because you have movement controls that work in traditional games, you've found a solution that works in VR. Make sure you've taken standing vs. sitting into account. And if you're making a Vive game- make sure you understand what kind of room dimension options you have. Take a look at what Stress Level Zero has figured out for their Vive testing:

Interaction

VR may also spell the end of the mouse cursor and click for interacting with elements. A wide variety of approaches have been tested- and it's been shown to be largely device dependent. With more immersive tools like the Oculus Touch, or the HTC Vive controllers- interaction will be much easier to solve for. Mike Alger has created a great video on interaction in VR- we'd highly recommend watching it.

Normal Maps

One of the curious things we've discovered is that normal maps can break immersion in VR in some cases. This is because the eye is very good at picking out depth information- and since VR is stereoscopic by default- we see normal maps as flat or lacking all of the depth information to signify 'this object has depth.' This means that geometry has to carry the weight of immersion much more than normal maps. It is probably a good idea to only use normal maps on objects that will be far away from the player since the parallax effect will be negligible beyond a certain distance. We're not saying don't use normal maps- but we're saying that if you try to use normal maps to convey depth on objects that are near the player, you're going to fight against immersion.

Model Detail

One of the amazing things about VR is the ability to get up close and personal with virtual objects. The consequence, of course, is that a great deal more work needs to go into making close objects seem realistic and detailed. The amount of fine tuned 3D modeling needed for strong VR experiences is going to be even more important than it has been in flat gaming. Users will expect close objects to be seamless, have high poly count and textures, and be fully interactive. You may be able to cut budget on far away objects, but not close objects.

Testing

User testing will be more critical than ever before. Not only will we need to make sure our games don't make users sick, we'll need to make sure we've designed environments that make sense from a 3D spacial standpoint. Can users figure out where to go? Are there visual or spacial audio cues about what to do next or where to look? If you're not testing your VR games out on actual end users, you're very likely to release a game riddled with problems.

Applying everything

Have a look at the trailer to our game Life of Lon to see how we've applied many of the things covered in this article:

If you enjoyed this article and this trailer, please be sure to give our youtube channel a subscribe!

Conclusion...for now

There's so much more to talk about, but alas, this is only a blog post. We will cover off on more of our learnings in the future. We hope this info has been valuable for VR content creators. If you liked it- please feel free to share!

Daniel Allen is the co-founder of Block Interval and co-creator of the in-development VR game Life of Lon. For more information about the project, check out lifeoflon.com or the VR announcement.

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Standing vs. Seated: The VR Community Weighs in

Last week, I put a survey in front of the VR community on reddit- specifically /r/oculus, /r/vive, and /r/virtualreality. There were an astonishing 547 responses- and the results were interesting to say the least. I plan on covering more of the findings in future write-ups, but today I'd like to talk about standing vs. seated experiences.

A Few Caveats...

It must be stated that this data is very informal and not thorough enough to be considered entirely scientific. Add to that the fact that I'm a game architect, not a statistician- I hope it can be accepted that these findings should be more about provoking discussion than as something to be sourced as comprehensive or fully authoritative. In fact, you may draw different conclusions from this data than I did- and that's ok! I'd like to know how I can ask better questions in future surveys as my goal is to gather information that will help other content creators like Block Interval find their way in this new medium.

Caveat 1: This data is self-selected

The people who filled out this survey were a) probably subscribed to one of the three subreddits listed above, b) passionate enough about VR to take a survey, and c) interested in knowing what others had to say. To me- this is a pretty narrow subset of who will be the actual core VR gaming audience once the Vive and Oculus CV1 come out.

Caveat 2: These enthusiasts are primarily interested in the Rift and the Vive

I didn't seek out responses from Fove or Samsung Gear enthusiasts- I stuck with the 2 primary home VR user groups (though /r/virtualreality does have a wider variety of users). Because of this- some of my data skewed heavily towards the Rift and Vive.

Caveat 3: This data represents anticipation- not reality

Since we don't have consumer versions of the Vive or Rift, we don't know how this data will change when we do. Many who answered probably haven't tried both of these devices, but responded based on what they anticipate they'll be doing with the devices. This may change drastically when we have consumer hardware (in fact, I expect it to).

Ok so all of that understood...

Let's get into the data

"Do you think you will regularly enjoy standing experiences in VR?"

"Do you think you will regularly enjoy standing experiences in VR?"

A few of the respondents messaged me and asked some variant of 'what if I want to play standing most of the time?' A better way to ask this question may have been something to the effect of, 'What percentage of the time do you think you'll enjoy standing in VR?' Perhaps in future polls I'll handle the question that way- but for now, we've got some rough numbers to look at.

The seated minority

It seems pretty clear that there will be a wide spread of preferences as far as standing and sitting goes. While they were definitely in the minority, 9% of users said they would prefer a mostly or entirely seated experience. In many development scenarios- it's more practical to design for the 90%, but consider the implications of missing out on 1 out of every 10 sales for your game because your players won't want to use it. I'm not saying we should sacrifice our standing games for this minority, but we should definitely be aware of the trade offs.

Conversely, creating a purely seated experience may alienate the 28% of respondents looking for regularly daily standing experiences.

Design for both?

A good rule of thumb may be to design for your primary expected use case with some clever gameplay and control degradation based on the user's preference to stand or sit. For example, if you have a game that requires moving your body around, perhaps you can create a toggle in the comfort options that allows seated players to achieve similar movement through peripherals.

User experience is now a staple of web and application design, but it will become all the more important when we migrate to VR. Comfort options are going to be the equivalent of today's accessibility options.

The majority of respondents (59%) seemed to be looking for a hybrid experience that had some standing and some sitting- or to be able to switch between standing and sitting depending on the experience or the mood. This is good news for game developers who have ideas that are more suited for one style over the other. Since demand doesn't seem to swing too strongly towards standing or sitting yet, there is room to innovate in both spaces. It will be interesting to see how game developers blur the lines between these two control styles.

Conclusion

The jury is still out on all of this. There's a lot more data to gather- and the entire landscape will probably change when the Vive and Rift consumer versions arrive over the next six months. I hope this information is useful in keeping the dialogue moving around standing vs. seated in VR and helps us move at least a little bit closer to understanding what gamers will want out of their experiences. Thanks for reading.

Daniel Allen is the co-founder of Block Interval and co-creator of the in-development VR game Life of Lon. For more information about the project, check out lifeoflon.com or the VR announcement.

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Introducing Life of Lon for VR

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Introducing Life of Lon for VR

Greetings!

You most likely haven't heard of our studio. We're Block Interval- a decentralized creative studio focusing on games, graphic novels, and whatever else floats our collective boats.

In August of 2014, we started working on an artistic 2D sidescroller called Life of Lon. This game came from an original story idea I had that was further developed by my best friend Stephane. Together, we conceived of a trilogy- and ultimately a universe to play in with lots of opportunities.

After working through a great deal of concept art and music, we moved towards development. It became clear early on that telling this story would contend with living in a genre with limited appeal. We might not be able to communicate as much of the wonder of this world as we wanted to. I had already been investigating VR but at this point, it seemed like we needed to take it a lot more seriously. After a number of months of R&D with an Oculus Rift, Block Interval took on Darryl Dempsey- creator of the Therapeutic Heights Rift demo. From then on out- it was full speed ahead for Life of Lon in VR. We scrapped our old dev work and started over from scratch. 

Take a look at the official Life of Lon website. (desktop only currently- mobile is coming).

Thanks for reading this long update. We hope you'll join us and like our spacebook or twit our tweeter if that's your thing. Or just pop back in on our project update here from time to time.

Cheers,

Daniel Allen and the Block Interval team

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Transience work continues!

Every single day we get further along in development of Transience. We hope to show off some of our work soon in the form of a new trailer or brief gameplay demo. Stay tuned!

Dan

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Transience gets Greenlit!

We're excited to announce that Transience has been Greenlit for release on Steam. This is a huge day for us as we look to future Steam releases. Huge kudos to all the hard work done by Ivor Grenac, Dave Nelson, and Courtland Winslow. We've got a lot of work to do to finish the game up, but this is quite the milestone.

Cheers,

Dan

 

 

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The Official Life of Lon website is up!

We couldn't be more ecstatic to announce that the official Life of Lon website is now live! Thank you to the Block Interval team for your hard work thus far.

In other news, we will be announcing a NEW game release which we hope to release by the summertime. More details on that to come.

Cheers,

Dan

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Weekly Update-January 23rd, 2015

Exciting developments this week for Life of Lon and Antiplane! 

Life Of Lon

  • Life of Lon is now on Tumblr! Click here to check us out.
  • Our team is doing research into the best techniques for facial animation
  • Made progress in character modelling
  • Level design continues
  • Maps are being designed
  • Worked on cut scene animation

Antiplane (working title)

  • Hard at work on level creation! 
  • Design documentation

 

 

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Weekly Update - January 16, 2015

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Weekly Update - January 16, 2015

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Another busy week at Block Interval! We've had some incredible movement on Life of Lon and we're really excited about what's next!

Life of Lon

  • Critter animation is under way (as you can see by the image in this post). We've got a lot of critter art that our very talented Courtland Winslow painted that is now being transformed by our lead animator Alisa Kober.
  • Our community named another critter! Check out Cedox! And make sure to like our Facebook page to vote on critter names each week!
  • Level design is under way.
  • We are still doing tests on how to animate Lon's face in an expressive enough way to tell our story.
  • Texture creation is under way.

Antiplane (working title)

  • Some music has been created
  • Development continues

Clockwork

  • Development continues

Funding

  • While the scope has been finalized for the Life of Lon demo, we are still working out the logistics of the weekly budget. We're hoping for an April kickstarter, so that will impact the speed at which we can work. More updates to come!

Thanks to everyone in our community who continues to root us on every day! It means a lot to us and motivates us on.

Cheers,

Dan

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Weekly Update - January 9, 2015

It's been a busy week at Block Interval! Here's what we've been up to:

Life of Lon

  • Scoped out our vertical slice. We now have an hours estimate and budget!
  • History/lore writing updates
  • Character storyboard sketches
  • Face texture swapping tests for Lon
  • Head/body animation tests for Lon
  • Rough Yep rig created
  • Research into normal maps for development
  • Most of our team is now up and running on Unity/Sourcetree
  • A bunch of meetings to figure all this out

10 Stories

  • Character sheet updates

Clockwork

  • Development continues

Funding

  • Researched options such as Patreon and Crowdfunder for fund raising in addition to Kickstarter

Other stuff

  • We got a nice reception on Steam Greenlight for our concept! We are excited to get a gameplay video done so we can get a true greenlight entry up!
  • Killing nazis in the new wolfenstein

Thanks to our new fans on Facebook! We're excited to have your support! Please share with friends!

Cheers,

Dan

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Welcome to our New Site! (And Happy New Year!)

It's an exciting time for Block Interval! We're kicking off 2015 with a lot going on:

  • The site you're looking at! Check back every week for updates.
  • Codi Carlman is our new community manager.
  • We're beginning to work on Ivor's new game- working title: Antiplane.
  • Lots of writing for Life of Lon this week.
  • Social media presences are coming soon! Updates to come.
  • Continued work on Life of Lon game design.

Our team wishes you good times in 2015! Happy new year!

-Dan

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