Will Bad VR Ads Make People Vomit?

Virtual reality (VR) is unlike any other media in a number of ways. After spending a lot more time with VR myself the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of one of the key differentiations: comfort is paramount.

It’s certainly nice to have decent back support or a plush pillow when reading in bed, to have a great couch when watching Netflix on TV, or to be seated anywhere but the front row when watching a movie in the theatre. But these comforts are somewhat ancillary to a particular medium: nice to have, but we aren’t severely impacted by lack of comfort if consuming the same media on a subway  or in a plane.

For VR, comfort comes into play in numerous ways, some of which can have severe negative effects.

First off, VR is much more physically taxing than other media. For most experiences, users are looking around themselves on a near-constant basis, often leaning in and out periodically. Imagine looking around your house for a fly, trying to track its movement back and forth, up and down. Now imagine doing that for several hours. It can get tiring.

Then there’s the comfort of the device you’re wearing on your face. Its weight, the pressure of the straps, the padding around the eyes and nose, and your own individual face shape combine to create an experience that can vary between fairly comfortable to rather uncomfortable.

The lenses are another area of concern. If a user wears glasses, the device may not accommodate the glasses properly, and there aren’t yet good solutions for custom-built lenses for VR devices that match a necessary prescription. Different people have different widths between their pupils, so a device with a fixed width between the lenses may not work for everyone.

Then there’s the technical delivery of the VR content. If the rendering drops below around 75 frames per second, the resulting “jitter” can be uncomfortable to experience. Latency between head movements and seeing those movements replicated can also be disconcerting. VR implementations need to properly adjust the rendering to optimize for the delivery depending on what devices are capable of, and sometimes this is easier said than done.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the content itself can affect viewer comfort. For example, I found problems when I tried out the Windows 10 VR beta for Minecraft last week. As an experienced VR user with many hours spent in VR, I turned off the VR turning mode, which slows down turns within the game. So I experienced turns as 15 degree “jumps” rather than smooth movement.

This turned out to be a huge mistake. Within around 30 minutes, I had my head in my lap trying not to throw up. Reading online, I discovered that a few people who made the same mistake out of hubris actually did throw up. I couldn’t even talk about how it felt the next day without feeling sick.

I’ve since played with the VR-turning mode back on, and everything is great. But subtle variations in gameplay, and how our brains interpret that gameplay in the context of a virtual environment that “feels” real, can have rapid ill effects.

VR is an amazing technology, and I’m excited to see what comes in the next few years. But we’re still very much at the inception, and while there are a few best practices, different content requires different considerations. And until things are more fleshed out, it’s a dangerous place for budget-strapped marketers. While not spending enough on design for a mobile website might make me WANT to throw up, not spending enough on design and Q&A for a branded VR experience could make your customers ACTUALLY throw up.

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