Location-Based Virtual Reality experiences, Social Environment and Onlookers

Dr Hugh Escott, Lecturer in English Language, Sheffield Hallam University

VR experiences are often talked about in terms of their capacity for immersing people into digital worlds, because of the technical capabilities of the headsets and other digital interfaces. Location-Based Virtual Reality (LBVR) experiences most likely take place in contexts outside of users’ homes, in an arcade setting for example, and often involve even more specialist equipment, such as mechanically moving elements, and unique interfaces to aid immersion and entertainment.

As part of the AHRC UK-JAPAN VR Research network, I was part of a group who visited Tokyo to work on developing a further funding bid about location-based Virtual Reality and magic. In this post I reflect on some unique and innovative LBVR experiences we encountered. However, I would like to focus more on the impact that some of the less high-tech, and more mundane, social and cultural elements of these experiences had on my sense of immersion. Particularly some small moments where the social environment I was in ‘pushed’ or ‘popped’ my attention (Bell et al 2018) further into or out of various game-worlds.

We were lucky enough to visit the headquarters of LBVR developers Hashilus, and to be allowed as a group to play many of the experiences that they had developed. I am reasonably new to the distinct issues that relate to VR, but my research background involves being able to look holistically at the texture and quality of cultural experiences and think about how different social, material, digital and emotional elements come together for these experiences to happen. Although, in this post I am focussed on thinking through some of my personal experiences.

Onlookers

Who you are with, and how they contribute to the atmosphere in which your actions take place, has a fundamental influence on what you do in most social situations. For example, witnessing a sporting event, performing in front of others, visiting the cinema, or playing a game, all have different qualities to them depending on who is involved and how you all respond. This isn’t a particularly groundbreaking comment to make. But in relation to the LBVR experiences we played at Hashilus, we took on multiple and changing roles that share similarities with the experiences I have outlined above, as we:

  • Cheered each other on
  • Had our individual moment in the spotlight
  • Enjoyed a shared visual spectacle or narrative
  • Competed with or against each other

In a number of games we played as group of four, working together to achieve a shared goal, whilst messing around within the game world. For example, all four of us worked to throw balls and smash pots in order to collect gold in GOLD RUSH. But also we spent a large amount of time bouncing the digital balls off each other’s heads and laughing. In other games, we took turns, whilst watching each other, and as you would expect this joking and laughing continued as we responded to our own or our colleague’s actions.

During all these experiences, our hosts were very careful to curate our experiences through attentively introducing us to each experience, and providing a very vocal and enthusiastic audience. Being in a Japanese context, our whole time at Hashilus was influenced by ideas about cultural hospitality. With the care and diligence that our hosts paid to our VR experiences reflecting the notion of ‘Omotenashi’, where going the extra-mile to anticipate needs is central. So during our experiences in digital story-worlds, through innovative interfaces we were always situated as part of larger groups, whether we were playing a group game, or playing individually, in a specific cultural context.

I was set up to play a football game based on the famous manga Captain Tsubasa. In the digital world, I was a character from this manga scoring goals against the opposition. When I kicked the ball it would blast through the air like a fireball. Anime goalies and defenders would crumple in useless piles in response to my powerful kicks. In the physical context, I stood on a platform, with a headset on, and kicked a ball that would move a limited amount because it was essentially attached to a collection of ropes. For onlookers both the digital and physical environments provided entertainment, as flaming footballs are very impressive, and watching the lumbering actions of others in VR headsets can be quite amusing. Whilst I could see a digitally rendered view of my immediate surroundings, in essence I had little visual awareness of the real physical environment I was in.

VR Captain Tsubasa

In the game world, I could hear the football crowds cheering when I scored and characters from the losing team would approach me to graciously comment on my skill. Simultaneously, I could hear members of the Hashilus team loudly cheering when I scored, commiserating when I missed, and praising my successes. As I played, I became more conscious of the presence of my invisible physical audience. You might think that this would be a potentially disruptive reminder of my physical environment, which would ‘pop’ my attention away from my new digital position as a skilled striker. What I found was that it ‘pushed’ me further into the game-world as it made me take my in-game actions much more seriously. I had a digitally rendered crowd responding to my actions, but I had no real relationship with them. I was playing in front of a real crowd, who I felt an affinity with, and so I began to take my actions much more seriously. Particularly after missing one shot and hearing the audible disappointment I caused for my real crowd. I was no longer just experiencing the novelty of this game, but felt the pressure to defeat the goalie by focussing in on how to position myself, time my kick, and angle the ball.

Alternatively, awareness of my relationship with my onlookers caused me to be quite significantly ‘popped’ out of another game. In Toya Racket you throw axes, and occasionally magical shattering maces, in order to defeat dragons and other mythical creatures. Rather than simply waving a VR controller to represent the action of throwing in the digital world, Hashilus have created a set up where you actually throw the physical controller and this gets translated into a trajectory for you axes in the digital world. The whole set-up is reminiscent of the basketball games you might encounter in arcades, where the balls roll back down to you after they have been thrown and the whole thing is confined to a small area. Except that instead of a backboard and cage, the whole set-up was made from structure and a curtain.

Game environment

I had watched as Deborah from our group played this game as I waited my turn. We were all very impressed with her technique and impressive high score. After putting on the headset, and trying a few tentative axes throws, I was intently focussed on throwing axes at dragons. I felt a sense of healthy competition with Deborah, and wanted to try and match or beat her high score. So I was trying to throw accurately to get more points. I had seen that Deborah had been successful through her fluid process of collecting the thrown controllers with one hand, as they slid down to the bottom of the curtain, quickly reloading them to her throwing hand, and then rapidly and consistently throwing the axes in order to maximise her throws in the time-limit. I replicated this action, and settled into the rhythm of throwing axes, working to fire off as many axes as possible given the time, and to compete with Deborah. Creatures would explode as I hit them with axes, and when I threw a glittering mace it would shatter into multiple axes that would splinter off and repeatedly hit enemies as splinters bounced from target to target. I felt in the zone.

Then I heard one of the controllers land on the floor behind me. Whilst the physical controller would  match up with a digital axe when it was in my hand, and also in the first few moments after leaving my hand, the rest of the time it didn’t appear in the digital environment. So what looked like an axe spinning off into the distance after hitting an enemy, was usually a controller bouncing off the curtain in front of me, and sliding down to the bottom to be picked up again. In this case it had bounced so hard it had clattered to the floor behind me. I was ‘popped’ out of the game-world as I worried that I had broken something and stopped playing. I asked whether everything was ok, but couldn’t see because of my headset. I felt embarrassed that our hosts had given me the opportunity to play one of their games and I had broken it by being over-zealous. I have a reputation for being quite clumsy, and the memory and shame of accidentally breaking things through enthusiasm came flooding back. I went to take my headset off to check on everything, but I was reassured that everything was ok, and that I should continue. I heard the controller being put back into the game rig in front of me. I resumed my axe throwing, but with caution, and with the awareness that what I had previous felt was digital axe-throwing finesse, could potentially result in clumsy and damaging actions.  I was no longer concerned with trying to compete with Deborah’s score, and played through the remainder of my time in the game in a much more pedestrian fashion.

During our time at Hashilus I had searched for gold in caves and tombs, kicked fiery footballs in an anime stadium, and fought battles in a fantasy world. But throughout all of these experiences I was taking part in them as part of a social group, and was publicly visible to others that I shared an affinity with. Like many people, I also wanted to engage in some healthy competition with my peers, and also didn’t want to be seen to be impolite. Messing around in the caves, intently committing to penalty kicks, and pulling back from high-score chasing axe-throwing, were all outcomes of my LBVR  experiences partly because they took place within this particular social environment. LBVR developers can create the digital and physical environments for experiences to take place. But there is something significant in the fact that audiences are involved in constructing the social environment through which these experiences play out.

References

Bell, A., Ensslin, A., Van Der Bom, I., & Smith, J. (2018). Immersion in digital fiction

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