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Designing for Physical Movement in VR

Physical movement and spatial awareness are two defining characteristics of true VR, so as a developer, how do you ensure that your users are getting the most out of the experience? With a new platform such as VR, changes in player inputs often lead to changes in gameplay dynamics. This change in behavior comes with tremendous challenges for developers and content creators. In the case of VR specifically, developers have to design for six degrees-of-freedom in a way that encourages some level of movement within the user’s play space but stays within the bounds of a user’s comfort - both physically and mentally.

When looking at our aggregate data we often see two distinct audiences: users are either hyperactive, using ample amounts of their playspace while the other group is physically immobile, relying heavily on controller locomotion such as teleportation. While we’ve defined these two groups as “user groups”, it is more likely a result of game design, not player characteristics. Users tend to follow the path of least resistance and in VR, thus far, that has been teleportation across most apps. While neither of these behavioral patterns is necessarily better than the other, anecdotal data suggests that the more users move about their physical space, the more immersed they feel. We can assume that this same hypothesis is driving the development of untethered headsets, eliminating the cords that can create apprehension and often break a user’s sense of immersion.

Have you designed an experience that promotes physical movement?

The Observer Analytics platform allows developers to easily track users physical movement and visualize how active their audience is throughout gameplay. The polarization that I described above can be easily identified when mapping physical movement data over our play space heatmaps. 

VR Analytics - limited physical movement VR Analytics - active users
Users that are mostly standing still, likely relying on teleportation or other forms of locomotion tied to controller inputs  Users physically moving within their play space, leveraging >1m2 of space


When comparing these two visualizations, you can see the stark difference between an audience who has grown accustomed to using controller locomotion for any amount of movement, vs. an active group, using over a square meter of physical space. As you design and iterate your VR experience, it is important to take these details into consideration. For example, if you notice that your audience tends to fall into the passive category of users, it might make sense for you to make your locomotion method a more prominent button in your control scheme. On the other hand, if you have a very active audience, you have the freedom to liberate your design team and allow them to stretch out designs, making users reach for objects or peer around corners.


How do you get your users comfortable with using their legs in VR?

There is no tried-and-true method that works across the board for all VR content yet, but we are seeing positive results when developers remind users early on about using their legs. Seeding this knowledge at the onset has a compounding effect as the user grows to be more confident throughout a session. To better understand how developers are taking this concept and putting into action we spoke with the teams behind the apps The Take and HOST.

John Corn, lead VR developer at Stuido Studios, the studio behind The Take, said that one of their early goals was to make sure users were comfortable in the headset, giving them constant awareness of their play space size, and also encouraging the use of their legs early on in the experience. He explains, “We wanted to encourage people to actually walk...we found that a lot of players were just teleporting everywhere, spending too much time trying to teleport even to move just six inches. We wanted to teach players that you don't have to teleport six get to the other side of the room, sure, teleport, otherwise, just take a step over.”

If you play The Take, you’ll notice that they incorporated design elements into the game to achieve these goals. This is first done by making the user aware of their play space dimensions at all times. When playing, you can see a circle around the user identifying where their playspace bounds are set so they’re aware of their limits. This gives users a sense of security at all times, increasing their confidence when making the decision between teleporting or stepping to move about the virtual environment. Secondly, early on in the experience, they tell the user to grab a lemon that is just outside of arm’s reach, which forces the user to take a physical step forward. While it seems insignificant, forcing the user to take this step at the onset of a session promotes continued physical movement through gameplay.

To get another perspective, we spoke with Garrett Fuselier, the designer and developer of HOST. This experience is unique in the fact that it doesn't use the controllers at all; your head and legs are the only inputs used throughout the experience which creates some interesting challenges when onboarding users for the first time.

He explains, “when you start the experience it's pitch black and I need to get [the user] into the middle of their playspace. You can't see anything except for this one little spot on the ground and you hear muffled audio. As [the user] gets closer to that spot on the ground, that audio actually opens up and becomes clearer. This [audio cue] allows [the user] to realize that it is a proximity-based experience.” He took this idea from traditional storytelling and he uses it often throughout the experience. He continues, “It’s similar to the open door idea where you're in a dark room and there's a cracked door with a noise or light just beyond it. You assume that beyond the cracked door is where [you] need to be.” Using audio and visual cues, HOST teaches users how to move about their playspace and really stretches the bounds of physical movement while in the headset.

The common thread between both of these learnings is that they get the user to move their legs early on in a session. Whether that be through conscious design or a blatant text remarks, reminding the user to leverage their legs to move about virtual space is key to achieving a higher bar of immersion. We write this post simply to encourage the community to consciously think about how level design can affect a user’s sense of presence and immersion.

Lucas Toohey

CEO & Co-founder @ Observer Analytics