Updated 02/06/17

Principles for immersive VR design

I want you to feel like you’ve been transported to another world - a real place that acts in ways that you expect. In my quest to create immersive virtual reality experiences I set myself guiding principles to steer design decisions and reach my goals. This page will be regularly updated with those principles and the reasoning behind them.

Please note that I am not suggesting that all VR games and experience should adopt these principles. In fact most of the popular VR projects will break them and that's fine and I still think they're fantastic. My personal focus is on immersion above all else, and this document simply explains the reasoning behind my future projects.

Make maximum use of the hardware

VR concepts should be based around what the hardware and software is capable of. Consider what VR excels at and what its limitations are before starting any project. Exposing limitations to the user generally breaks immersion.

Get the user moving around and using their available space.

Make the virtual world aware of the user's voice, even if that just means a character turns and makes eye contact.

Make the most of knowing where the user is focusing their gaze.

Invest time and effort into audio and haptic feedback.

Treat the virtual world as a real place

If it looks like you can move it, it should move.

If you have the means to break something, it should break.

If you can't simulate something convincingly, throw it out. A piece of paper that's as rigid as wood or painted into a floor texture becoming impossibly flat is unacceptable. The simple solution is to not use paper.

Simulating familiar real-world experiences is very immersive when done convincingly, e.g. knocking an object over. However, that familiarity means that incorrect behaviour stands out and breaks immersion. Unfamiliar sci-fi solutions are preferable to compromised real-word solutions.

If you can't move somewhere or touch something, make it obvious rather than leaving the user to randomly try and fail.

We can't prevent boundary violations, but we can use visual (fade out) and audio cues when the user puts their head through walls or objects.

Keep it real

The headset is a portal to the virtual world. Stepping through the wardrobe to reach Narnia would have been far less convincing if the children had sat through company logos and navigated menu options before arriving.

Putting the headset on should immediately present the virtual world.

Options traditionally presented via a menu should now be accessible by interacting with the virtual world.

Physical interactions should feel natural

VR struggles with interactivity. Watching fake hands drift away from the controller's position to operate a lever breaks immersion, as does pressing a button and watching your hand pass through it.

If your hand can pass through objects - that needs to be explained in the game.

If your controller can drift away from the position of your hand - that needs to be explained too.

The user should be able to use their dominant hand for any activity or interaction.

Immersion is broken every time the user has to stop and think about how to use their controller to interact.

If a user picks up a heavy object the lack of weight will make it feel hollow and plastic. Keep interactive objects light. Find other (cause and effect) ways to manipulate heavier objects.

Avoid impacts with the user where haptic feedback can't be given. Being hit with a sword and feeling nothing is not immersive. Maybe a projected shield could protect you from the strike and there could be other consequences.

If you need to hit a button on the controller, you should see it in the correct position in VR.

Adapt to the player's height and space

Trying to reach an object just out of the bounds of your playing area is very frustrating and immersion breaking. Make objects / environments adapt to fit the user's physical environment.

The virtual world should change to best suit the player's height. Objects shouldn't be too high to reach, windows should be the right height to lean through, UI the most comfortable height to interact with.

Don't give users neck ache, people don't like looking up for long periods.

Locomotion should be flexible and explicable

Where changing location is required, offer teleport for comfort and optional artificial locomotion for flexibility.

The existence and sensations of both forms of locomotion should be explained through the narrative. For example, teleporting is a technology or special ability. The sliding sensation of artificial locomotion could be activated by standing on a floating platform or Seqway-type device or maybe you're on ice.

Avoid language where possible

Due to the small market size and lack of budget for translations it's necessary to keep any language and text to a minimum.

If something needs a lot of explaining it's not intuitive enough.

If a simple solution is not feasible, show how it works rather than explain it.

Audio and haptics are as important as the visuals

Look for opportunities to include objects and events that can present audio or provide haptic feedback.

Positioned sound that has a visual source is more immersive than general ambient effects.

Haptic feedback should be given at every opportunity. Subtle effects can be the most immersive. The player should feel like they are making contact with something rather than noticing their controller is vibrating.


That's all for now. I'll keep updating this document as I progress :)

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