For most people, VR is not normal. VR can provide valuable experiences, ranging from entertainment to enlightenment to education, and all that’s in between. However, there’s a long way to go before strapping a screen onto one’s face beds itself into culture as a standard thing to do. Just look at the majority of VR memes online – most of them centre around VR being kind of dorky. It looks silly because it’s so new to our culture. We can’t place it.
This oddity is something you shouldn’t ignore when you are showing other people VR. By the time you’re ready to show off your VR work, standing proudly holding a headset, it may well feel normal to you now, however, with 84% of the population having not yet seen VR, the chances are, it’s your audience member’s first time. Drawing from my own experience, I’ve created this guide, which is designed to help you make those first-timer VR moments as comfortable and rewarding as they can possibly be.
First, pick a space. The goal is for your VR participant to be as free from worries and distractions as possible. The best spaces are cool, quiet and ideally separate from other people. Being away from busy or noisy environments makes a big difference to practical considerations like sound quality, but it also helps participants feel safe. Feeling safe is important in regards to making VR feel inclusive. Think through questions like: who will be watching my participant’s bags while she’s immersed? What if he young children with him – who will babysit for 10 mins? How can we make participants less worried about having unwanted goofy photos taken of them? How can we make sure other people don’t try to interrupt her while she’s in VR (this can be disconcerting)?
Imagine this scenario: you’ve almost finished building your first VR experience, and are desperate to show it off to your four colleagues. You have a meeting scheduled, where your VR experience is just one agenda item. However, when you show it to them, one by one, it dawns on you. At 15 minutes per person, it’s going to take an hour to get everyone through it. And what does everyone else do when one person is in it? Watch and wait awkwardly? Take photos? It’s not like you can properly get on with the meeting while one person is otherwise engaged. This happened to me, and I learned that the timing around showing VR isn’t easy.
The more people you’re showing a VR experience to at once, the more complex it gets. What gets frustrating are queues of people waiting to ‘have a go’. If the VR experience is more than four minutes or so, you really have to think about it in advance. For bigger groups, the best thing is either a create booking system or use multiple headsets, allowing the group to experience it simultaneously.
There are a few key pieces of information you can tell VR-first-timers before they put the headset on that will make them feel more comfortable and encourage a smooth overall process:
- Manage expectations and tell participants how long the experience is
- If movement is limited in your VR experience, reassure them that nausea is very unlikely
- Let them know whether or not they will be supervised
- Tell them what to do if they begin to feel nauseous or anxious and want to come out. I recommend telling your audience that they can close their eyes and breathe deeply if they want a break, and that if they want to come out completely, they can close their eyes, put their hand up, and you/the steward will help them take off the headset
- Share the protocol for glasses wearers - and inform them it is fine to keep them on
- Let participants know the headset has been cleaned recently
- Give any contextual information that will help them establish themselves in the virtual world once they are in it
- Explain whether or not they are expected to interact with anything, and if so, how.
And finally, the afterchat. Good VR bedside manner allows time for your participant to a) take a few moments to come back down to earth and b) talk about their experience.
If it’s one-on-one, a nice way to give them some decompression time is to go and get them a glass of water. Some participants will be particularly affected, especially if the VR’s topic has particular emotional resonance with them. If this is the case, let them know that it’s totally fine to respond with emotion, and is even, to some extent, expected. Treat these emotionally affected participants with respect, and if they choose to talk to you about it, practice active listening.
I’ve found people often come out of VR eager to tell their stories. I think this is because so much of VR is about ‘doing’ a story rather than being ‘told’ one. If your participant has come out of VR with their own story to tell, which is usually the goal, then you need to offer them that space to tell their story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you that they talk to, it can be with their own group, but giving them the space and time for that ‘how was it for you?’ moment can make the entire experience much more meaningful in the long run.
I’ve thought a lot about how to make VR feel ‘normal’, and I’ve come to the understanding that it’s really about creating familiar rituals that frame the experience. This is how theatre works; from picking up your ticket to having a pre-show drink, to sitting in the auditorium waiting for the lights to go down. All of these ritual activities are designed to achieve the best possible state of mind for live performance. Not only does this sort of approach make VR more inclusive, it also helps your audience let go, immerse themselves the content, and feel, well... normal.