Imagining the Future: HMU Experience - Part 2
VR headsets may cover our eyes but they don't shut us out from the world. What can we do to help share virtual experiences with those in the same room with us?

With millions of new VR users coming online in 2020 we're willing to bet not all of them live alone. Despite the previously held belief that putting on a virtual reality headset would disconnect you from the world new VR users report the opposite, and are embracing opportunities for connecting with others around the world. But why should we only be looking to connect with people far away? Why not look deeper into how we can share an experience with the people who are in the same room with us beyond broadcasting what we see to another screen?

What we're thinking isn't the same as a game designed for networked play that you experience with someone in the same room. VR arcades already feature games and experiences that allow a shared experience, but mostly they are taking networked multiplayer games and bring all of the users into the same room. What we're proposing is not quite the same as what you can already purchase in any of the VR gaming marketplaces.

In order to enable our vision of shared experiences to live we're going to need a new feature.

Feature Update: In-Person Shared Virtual Experiences

Multiplayer games allow a shared simultaneous experience for more than one participant, but they typically are designed in a way that does not rely on physically being in the same location. This is a design decision primarily based on lack of support from the HMU to detect another HMU user standing several feet away. Individually HMUs have solved the problem of keeping us from tripping over furniture but have not provided a way to keep two users from bumping into one another in the same room.

A shared guardian experience

The current systems for making boundaries around users (Oculus Guardian System or Chaperone on the HTC Vive) is pretty much the gold standard for home spatially aware VR safety on HMUs. Both systems allow you to define a safe boundary area where you can walk around with your headset covering your eyes. If you come too close to the boundary the headset provides a visual warning, hopefully preventing you from tripping, falling, or bumping into something.

Having shared proximity mirrored in VR will create interesting design opportunities as well as interactions that are only possible when two people share the same physical location and VR world together.

Having a common safety boundary and each headset being aware of each other's location within the shared boundary we could enable a new generation of experiences. Looking at how the boundary systems currently operate it does not seem to be a major technological hurdle to make this happen. Individually a user's headset is tracking its location within a boundary and displays warnings to a user when they come close to the edge. So we can be sure that individually a headset knows its physical location within the boundary. If users are sharing a common boundary an update would only need to be made that would broadcast the location of both users to each other.

Experiences within VR arcades where multiple people share an experience are usually the most popular attractions for a good reason. They draw in people because it is a little less frightening to try something new when you’re doing it with your people you know. These experiences have been traditionally networked games that position players in static locations to prevent them from needing to be in the same space, but from a user standpoint they still see this as being in the same place with other players. The demand is already there for these experiences, but the tools to make them possible are still quite limited.

Look to the Microsoft Xbox Kinect for inspiration

The Microsoft Kinect was a motion sensing controller for the Xbox which allowed full body tracking for up to 6 people in a room. Before it came to market the predominant way of controlling games on the Xbox platform was with the standard handheld controller. This limited how many people could participate to the number of controllers you purchased, but the gaming system could not support more than 4 controllers.

Game designers worked within this hardware constraint to design games that fit the capabilities of the platform. We say limits, but controllers with a directional pad and buttons were the dominant interface for more than 2 decades for home consoles. The change to providing both gamers and game designers with additional ways to interact with a game opened the possibility to experiences that did not work as well with standard handheld controllers. Some experiences were even impossible with a standard handheld controller, and require motion tracking or gesture controls.

Here are a list of noteworthy experiences that work better with motion controls than on any other platform:

  • Just Dance 2020 - Dancing using your whole body actually teaches you the real life dance choreography
  • Fruit Ninja - Ported onto Xbox but motion controls makes it better since you use your whole arm to swipe
  • Zumba Fitness - Break an actual sweat doing Zumba routines taught in actual gym classes
  • Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster - A simple and fun experience for children to play with Sesame Street characters without complicated controls

Along with the normal console games the massive sales figures for the Xbox can be attributed to attracting a broader audience of "casual" or non-gamers. This made the console more than just a game system, and added to it becoming an entertainment hub for the family. Some of these IPs continue to live on after the discontinuance of the Kinect, but they helped not only show the commercial viability of motion tracking but that non-violent gaming could draw in a large audience. They proved that a new way to interact with a game could bring about fun experiences that would draw in player from 4 years old to over 60 years old.

Bring the arcade experience home

We had the pleasure of visiting VR Zone in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan before it closed. One of the most memorable experiences we've ever had in VR was playing Dragon Quest VR. Being able to enter a virtual world with three other people wearing VR gear was nothing that I had ever experienced playing at home connecting with people online only. The energy and the feel of it changes to being much less about relying only on what the headset could show me to something much more immersive where presence can be felt as well as seen.

Considering the advances in technology and the continued minimization of hardware it's pretty humorous to see people walking around wearing PC computers in backpacks. The power of the modern headsets are not as great as PC VR, but a comparable experience could be made with current with the current generation of consumer VR headsets.

The original gaming consoles promised an arcade experience in your home. Making this update for HMUs will help bring that promise to VR.

Considering the advances in technology and the continued minimization of hardware it's pretty humorous to see people walking around wearing PC computers in backpacks. The power of the modern headsets are still not as great as PC VR, but a comparable experience could be made with current with the current generation of consumer VR headsets.

More creative experiences will come from additional capabilities

A person could look at every game currently in the VR marketplaces as examples of how a new set of user capabilities inspires new and creative ideas. New hardware capabilities enable designers and developers to push beyond what the previous generation of consoles said was impossible. The Nintendo Wii's nunchaku controller got families off the sofa and playing games together. The Microsoft Kinect brought even more people into gaming and allowed even more people in the same room to play together. We feel it's important to bring those capabilities to VR so we don't wind up isolating those we care about while enjoying virtual experiences.

This feature addition, we hope, will inspire others to imagine what's possible when we know people are in the same location and can get information on their position relative to one another. The future is looking better all the time, and hopefully we'll be able to share more experiences with those around us, both in the physical and virtual worlds.

This is part two in our series, be sure to check back for additional installments where we continue imagining what the future of HMU capabilities could allow. Are we on the right track? Are we way outside the realm of plausibility? Let us know how you feel think below or on Twitter.

Featured image by:

@Anyra via Twenty20

Additional images by:

@boho.viewvia Twenty20

@kikojaviervia Twenty20