Fully immersive VR is a truly embodied experience. You move and interact with virtual objects and characters and, if the virtual environment is networked, with other players. It’s not like watching a movie, it’s like being in it and you can make things happen. This feeling of ‘being there’ in the virtual world is called presence or, when you are with others, social presence.
Immersive VR systems (Oculus Rift or HTC Vive) are designed so that the user is ‘protected’ or ‘contained’ by a virtual Guardian or Chaperone system. These systems consist of a 3D grid cage which pops up when the user strays beyond the safe, object free area that they have set up when configuring the equipment (see the screenshot below for Oculus Rift). Guardian systems temporarily break the sense of immersive presence by providing a visual cue that the user needs to move back into the safe zone.
During phase 1 of the VR School Project, we observed that students moved in very different ways especially in Minecraft VR where there is a great deal of autonomy in the open world game.
Some students moved very little, favoring small hand gestures and head movements and minor body rotations. Others rotated a lot but within a fairly restricted footprint but moved their heads, hands and arms more freely. There were also students who were very kinetic; they danced, boxed, galloped on the spot on virtual horses, waved their arms around, crouched down, kicked and repeatedly rotated, often getting the tether (which attaches the headset to the laptop) wrapped around their bodies.
All students in VR needed supervision, even the less active movers. In the VR School project, either the researcher or another students acted as a ‘spotter’. The spotter’s role was to make sure that the students in VR did not collide with objects or student spectators. This role was necessary because the engineered solution to safety, in this case the Guardian system, was sometimes ‘ignored’ by students. I have put the word ‘ignored’ in quote marks because it did not appear that students consciously put themselves at risk of bumping into objects. Rather, some students appeared to be so immersed that they automatically continued their actions outside of the safe area and seemed surprised when the spotter told them they were too close to objects and needed reorientation.
Furthermore, it appeared that the intensity of immersive VR could occasionally trigger a flight or fright response. For example, on one occasion when using the survival mode of Minecraft VR, a student was violently startled when spiders began to approach her. She began to crab-walk sideways at speed and the researcher had to speak loudly to her and place a hand on her shoulder to stop her running off.
There is certainly much more research that needs to be done on the adequacy of Guardian systems in breaking intense feelings of presence in VR, especially for those who are new to the experience but also in relation to startle responses. Some research suggests that young people can become so immersed in virtual and augmented reality environments that they enact unsafe behaviour due to a lack of awareness.
In most cases the Guardian system combined with the physical sensation of being tethered broke the feeling of presence enough so that student regulated their own safety in VR. The current version of the Oculus Rift is tethered, however the new Oculus Go is not. There are certainly safety issue to be explored with untethered design and practical and duty of care issues regarding the need for constant supervision of students who are in immersive VR. Much more public discussion regarding these issues is required.
Associate Professor Erica Southgate