Devs discuss the best practices for creating positive social VR

With the VR community still growing, how can developers think more broadly to expand their audience? What mechanics could be built to make these small communities feel bigger, and how do we navigate challenges that arise in such a new space?

At VRDC Fall 2017 in San Francisco today, a panel of experienced devs provided insight into how fellow developers can foster a more enjoyable, interactive experience among VR users across all platforms.

Make sure to follow Gamasutra’s coverage on the special event page, which will be updated regularly during the show!

Rob Jagnow, Software Engineer at Google, opened the talk with a lighthearted comment about the talk’s description. “I’m sure it was the alliteration that drew you.” He followed with a brief rundown of the design considerations that developers must take when creating VR and AR applications, and presented 3 attributes that weren’t getting enough attention: asymmetric, asynchronous, and abuse.

Why is this important? Jagnow argues it’s because there just aren’t enough people in VR right now. With that, he follows with a crucial piece of advice: “The most inviting VR apps will be the ones that understand how to engage those who aren’t in VR.”

“How can I engage a larger audience by making my experience asymmetric? What’s the benefit of allowing my users to engage with an experience asynchronously? How will your app deal with abuse?” These 3 attributes: asymmetric, asynchronous, and abuse need more discussion, he argues. How does that relate to creating better communities for social VR?

Asymmetric lets users on different devices experience the same space. This would mean sharing experiences from VR to phone or VR to desktop. Asynchronous allows users to participate in a shared experience even if they’re not engaging at the same time. For abuse, consider the potential for harassment in the earliest design stages.

Daniel Citron, a VR designer at Google, leads into how asymmetry and asynchrony are often taken for granted when developing for VR. “Interactive asymmetry lets the users not in VR engage in the experience in a meaningful way,” said Citron. “It’s about coming up with interesting interactions between people in VR and outside of VR.” Citron compared this experience to exploring a cave, where one person would be inside navigating while the other would be outside directing.

He went on to provide other examples of interactive asymmetric design. “Owlchemy launched a spectator camera where you can switch views. Once you start allowing people to get other perspectives, you get a better sense of what’s going on, and it’s more fun for people outside.”

Asymmetry lets us share experiences across devices, while asynchrony lets us share experiences across time. A big factor in creating a community is making the space accessible and feel lived in, where your changes within the environment affect other users. “Your presence matters in this world. It creates a sense of community.”

But with the excitement of building great interactive spaces comes a heavy responsibility. Owlchemy Labs Studio Director Cy Wise introduced us to the abuse that occurs within VR spaces. Her background in managing online communities also meant that she endured her fair share of harassment. “It sucks that we have to talk about this. Thank you for being willing to talk about it.”

There are several ways that abuse can happen in VR—whether gestural, auditory, environmental or bodily, these negative interactions are further heightened by six degrees of freedom. Wise mentioned how the current rhetoric around abuse focuses on tools. “Most of what’s being talked about right now talk about tools for the harassed.” Users can block and ignore, or create a personal space bubble where harassers disappear after coming too close.

What isn’t being talked about? What are other, better solutions to stop abuse? “There are no best practices yet,” explained Wise. “The problem is that players don’t know where to look for these ‘best practices’.”

She encouraged developers to experiment. Design reactive tools that allow victimized players to protect themselves. Be pre-emptive and make design decisions early that encourage positive behavior. Allow the player to customize their own levels of social interactions.

Tools must be considered during development. Build as early as you can; after launch is far too late. It needs to be considered as part of your design. “It’s a ton of work,” said Wise. “These are hard problems. It’s going to take a lot of time and human power. The industry as a whole is harmed by putting out a half supported social experience.”

As the session draws to a close, Jagnow takes the stage one last time. “This talk is all over the place. What ties it all together? We looked around the design space and from the perspective of 10 years in the future: where did we not spend enough time? What elements are we not leveraging enough to build social communities that are different?”

It comes back full circle to a slide dedicated to the alliteration mentioned before. When developing for social VR, consider these questions: How can I engage a larger audience by making my experience asymmetric? What’s the benefit of allowing my users to engage with an experience asynchronously? How will your application handle abuse?

This article originally appeared on Gamasutra. Make sure to follow Gamasutra’s coverage of VRDC 2017 here