Why You Should Science the Sh*t out of Your VR Experience

I was reading University of Illinois professor Steve LaValle’s book Virtual Reality and he makes a forceful argument for doing research in any VR experience. LaValle starts out talking about research by talking about the difference between having a first-person vs. third-person perspective.

"When a scientist designs an experiment for an organism, as shown in Figure 1.2, then the separation is clear: The laboratory subject (organism) has a first-person experience, while the scientist is a third-person observer. The scientist carefully designs the VR system as part of an experiment that will help to resolve a scientific hypothesis. For example, how does turning off a few neurons in a rat’s brain affect its navigation ability?"

"On the other hand, when engineers or developers construct a VR system or experience, they are usually targeting themselves and people like them. They feel perfectly comfortable moving back and forth between being the 'scientist' and the 'lab subject' while evaluating and refining their work…this is a bad idea!"

There are concrete benefits to testing an experience outside of your immediate team.  LaValle continues:

  • "The creators of the experience are heavily biased by their desire for it to succeed without having to redo their work. 
  • They also know what the experience is supposed to mean or accomplish, which provides a strong bias in comparison to a fresh subject. 
  • VR disrupts the ordinary perceptual processes of its users…It is hard to predict how others will react to your own writing. Also, it is usually harder to proofread your own writing in comparison to that of others. In the case of VR, these effects are much stronger and yet elusive to the point that you must force yourself to pay attention to them.

It should be clear from this section that proposed VR systems and experiences need to be evaluated on users to understand whether they are yielding the desired effect while also avoiding unwanted side effects. This amounts to applying the scientific method to make observations, formulate hypotheses, and design experiments that determine their validity.”

Takeaways for designers:

  • You have incentives to believe that first-time users will understand your experience, but testing is the only way to really find out. 
  • Develop a test plan before you bring in people to try your experience. For example, let’s say you are updating version A to Version B. Get very specific about what you predict the improvements of Version B will offer, such as:
    ⁃          reduction in adverse symptoms
    ⁃          improved comfort
    ⁃          greater efficiency at solving tasks
    ⁃          higher presence, or sense of being there
    ⁃          greater enjoyment of the activity

LaValle’s book is a great resource for all things VR. It’s downloadable here.