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I’ve been on the Internet for a very long time and I’ve kept up with technology. I’ve seen every fad come and go. Some people believe that Virtual Reality is a dying fad like 3D televisions, but I don’t think it’s a fad. I think that VR is going to be massively popular in the coming years, but currently, VR developers really aren’t doing the technology any favors.
VR FROM A RECLINED POSITION
I’ve bought, and refunded, several VR games. The vast majority of them had the exact same problem, which is that I go into VR from a non-standard position. 95% of the time I’m on a computer, I’m sitting in a recliner.
I had a back issue a few years back that I solved by moving from a standard desk and gaming chair to a recliner. Not only did it solve that problem, but it also solved for the terrible habit I had of sitting hunched forward with my legs crossed in front and tucked under me. I was for sure heading towards blood clots in my legs from sitting like that, given the amount of time I spend on a computer.
The VR app that I use the most is Bigscreen VR. It’s a social app that simulates a movie theater experience, and allows you to watch stuff together with your friends or strangers. It is one of the only VR apps that I can recall that has worked well from a reclined position. But even Bigscreen VR isn’t perfect. The theater’s lights are controlled from the console between the theater seats, which is inpossible to reach if you’re reclined unless you do some serious contorting.
If you can’t do something in VR because of a limited range of motion in real life, I think that you have failed as a VR developer.
EVERYONE IS MISSING THE POINT
Of course I could just lower the recliner into a standard sitting position and play that way. But that’s stupid. Why is VR more restrictive than my 27” monitor? Doesn’t that defeat the entire point?
Some people argue that VR should be a totally immersive experience. You look down, you see your hands, you move your hands around, and so on. Your view is restricted to your neck’s range of motion. While that’s cool, does that kind of immersion trump user experience?
To me, this highlights a very backwards focus on shallow marketing rather than just making VR a fun experience. Being able to look down to see your virtual hands quickly loses its novelty when there’s something in your VR space that you can’t pick up without going out of your way in real life.
For example, I downloaded Pokerstars VR because I love poker and the idea of sitting at a table talking with 6-9 strangers and shooting the shit over a few hands is appealing to me. The game itself is beautiful, the interface is advanced and polished, and the game is clearly developed by people that know what they’re doing. However, it’s completely unplayable for me. Why? Because they make you reach down to bet and reach down to see your cards. I have to contort my body every single hand.
They spent all of this money developing the game but never thought to ask themselves if accessibility should be increased at the cost of some immersion. Do people really care that it kind of looks like they’re betting or it kind of looks like they’re really holding their cards, or do they just want to play poker and interact with people? VR is an entire industry that that seems to not be able to see the forest for the trees. People will come back if it’s easy to play and it’s fun. This isn’t a new concept.
You should be able to do anything you want to in VR without moving anything but the controllers, ideally. Not just for lazy people like me, but for people with disabilities who would benefit from improved accessibility in general.
The Metaverse Sucks
When you enter Horizon Worlds (The Metaverse), you walk around and everything looks kind of shitty and cartoony. That can actually be fine. It’s a social sandbox, and the experience should be driven by the people rather than its fledgling technology. Their world creation tools are actually pretty powerful, but they’re new, so there’s not a lot of great stuff to do yet. That base of users is what you will need to build on so that you can continue to fund the technology as it develops.
The metaverse feels like an AOL chat room from the 90’s but with Wii avatars, and that’s not really a bad thing. Those days were fun. The Internet felt like a much smaller community, and you could just kind of wander around looking for where you fit in. If you didn’t want to talk, you didn’t have to. You could move from community to community, channel to channel, mostly unnoticed.
The metaverse captures a little bit of this magic and has potential, but right now it sucks. It sucks because Meta is ignoring what makes new technology fun and exciting. They want to show you business people meeting in VR. They want to show you kids playing basketball or flying paper airplanes together. The Moms doing aerobics. They’re selling you on novelty, but they’re not delivering anything that gets its hooks in you the day after you make the purchase.
Lurking Is Important
In all of its public spaces in the metaverse, you can walk around and listen in on conversations if you want to, but if you’re socially awkward it’s going to suck for you.
Your choices are to find a circle of people talking to eachother and stare awkwardly into it from just outside, which is a very familiar scenario in real life for most socially awkward people. The other option is to pick someplace nearby, turn your back to the circle, and listen in while you look like a weirdo staring at a wall. Also familiar.
Chat rooms, and more recently technologies like Discord and Telegram, are popular because you’re not expected to participate in the conversations that are being held. You can just lurk. There are lots of people who like to wait for an opportunity to jump in to a conversation, and traditional chat platforms facilitate that very well.
Some people need time to come out of their shell and as soon as they do, they will be the ones that keep coming back every time they get a chance. That trust needs to be cultivated, and that takes time. If they’re uncomfortable, they will leave. It’s very simple. In real life, it’s very hard to navigate communities if you’re socially awkward. The Internet generally allows you to fit in somewhere over time.
The Metaverse Is Socially Regressive
Horizon Worlds forces you to expose your presence because a world full of avatars is better for screenshots and therefore better for marketing. It would actually be better for performance if those who wanted to hide their physicial presence were allowed to do so; if those who just wanted to people watch were allowed to do so.
The outgoing people in public worlds would still be there chatting away, but they would be more approachable. Suddenly the awkward group of 15 avatars with three people chatting would just be three people chatting waiting for a fourth to chime in when they feel comfortable enough to do so. It would also make it much easier to identify and deal with the trolls if the only visible people were only people who have recently spoken.
Lurkers are not an inherently bad thing and Horizon Worlds makes lurking awkward as hell for absolutely no reason. If anything, the ability for people to lurk would make it more comfortable for the people chatting as well. The marketing seems to suggest that being socially awkward is somehow solved by VR, when in fact, it’s kind of worsened by it at the moment.
So How Would I Fix The Metaverse?
I think that there are two glaringly obvious solutions that, if implemented, would immediately improve the user experience.
The first would be to make avatars amorphous with an opacity level that decreases over a set amount of time in public worlds, which can be adjusted by the user themselves. This would allow the user to decide if they want to be seen or not until they speak, at which point their opacity goes back up to 100% and then stay there until they mute their microphone. Perhaps the user could also click on another user and allow them to always see their avatar, so that they can be recognized quickly.
The second would be to add free looking. There is absolutely no reason your line of sight should be restricted based on your physical range of motion. This has been my biggest pet peeve about VR from its inception, and it just continues to be ignored by developers. If I could just release my view to free look and control it with one of my hand controllers when I need to interact with some object beneath me, my VR experience would immediately and exponentially improve. The number of games I could actually play, and therefore pay money for, would also increase. If motion sickness is the concern, just slow down the top speed of free looking.
Or even better yet, instead of making me pick up a ball on the ground, create an interface in my field of view that I can interact with instead to pick it up when I’m within range. That way, I don’t even have to move my head to look for the object and further increase the chances of getting motion sick. Every single game would be improved by this one adjustment to the current paradigm. And if your argument is BuT mY iMmErSiOn, then I ask, how immersed can you be in a world of sheared pixels that looks worse than a standard cartoon if you can’t even interact with it properly?
Whichever developer figures out that focusing on user experience over novelty will win the race to the top of the virtual reality market, dominate it, and create a golden age for the technology.