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Why you should consider adding a spectator controlled spectating mode to your next Virtual Reality title

Many VR titles focus on creating an amazing experience for the player wearing the headset and forget about the spectators. Research shows that letting spectators control their view to the virtual world increases their engagement and that of the VR player.

Virtual Reality has come a long way since its modern major release in 2016. Both the hardware and the software have gotten a lot better and the worlds they allow people to visit have become incredible. Today's technology allows players to freely move in a virtual 3D space, interact with objects that exist there, and live a fantasy life. As amazing as this sounds, unfortunately many VR experiences forget another key player - the spectator.

Current spectating experience

Many VR games end up being played together with and shared with other people who are watching the whole experience unfold on a monitor that is connected to the PC running the experience (or cast wirelessly in the case of mobile VR, such as the Oculus Quest). As these spectators see the game react to the real life movements of the VR player, they feel a sense of wonder and excitement and they become curious and interested in trying it out for themselves. However, while the spectators wait for their turn to put on the VR headset, from their perspective, the experience usually looks like this:

VR Spectators    

Image taken from https://include-vr.com/viewr/

The VR player gets to experience the incredible feeling of being inside of a 3D virtual fantasy world, while the spectators stare at a 2D snapshot of the world through the eyes of the VR player on a monitor. This type of experience is quite engaging for the VR player thanks to VR technology, but not as much for the spectators. How can the spectators be better included in the experience?

Current solutions

Various researchers and companies are looking into ways of including the spectator in the VR experience. One proposed solution is ReverseCAVE by Ishii et al., revealed in 2018:

ReverseCAVE Image from Ishii et al.'s 2018 paper about ReverseCAVE.

The goal of ReverseCAVE is to visualize VR experiences to the public. The prototype seen in the image above uses CAVE-based projection with translucent screens for the public that surrounds the VR player and displays the VR environment to everyone else. This technology is one step above the more common setup used by many video creators and streamers which uses a green screen cube and digitally places the VR player inside of the virtual world:

Example of a green cube VR setup using LIV.

Unfortunately, these kinds of setups are not easily accessible to many casual VR players. Not everyone can afford four projectors and a glass cube, nor does everyone have enough space for a green screen cube in their homes. This is where a solution like ViewR comes in.

ViewR

ViewR is an SDK that allows developers to bring in spectators into a VR experience using AR technology. This is how its creators, #include, describe ViewR:


ViewR takes VR gaming out of its isolated world and allows other participants to have a window into the immersive environment, watching how the player is interacting with objects. Designed as a mod for players and an SDK for game developers, ViewR is the first solution to stream a view from virtual reality.

ViewR is incredibly simple to use and allows spectators to connect to a PC VR experience over WiFi with just an app on a smartphone. The phone then gets associated with an in-game camera and provides a tracked view into the VR world using either Google's ARCore or an HTC Vive tracker. 

The idea of ViewR sounds incredible - invest a small amount of time and work on implementing the SDK in a VR project and suddenly spectators can participate in the VR experience. Is it worth it though? Does letting the spectators be part of the VR experience improve their engagement or that of the VR players in any way? Let's find out.

Including spectators in the VR experience

I have conducted a study in an attempt to answer the question of whether letting the spectators be part of the VR experience would improve their engagement or that of the VR players in any way. The study looked at the engagement levels of 14 participants in three different situations:

1. Common VR spectating setup (Passive)

One participant was going through a VR experience with a VR headset, while another was spectating and viewing the VR world on a computer monitor from the perspective of the VR player.

2. Gamepad controlled spectator camera (Gamepad)

One participant was going through a VR experience with a VR headset, while another was spectating and viewing the VR world on a computer monitor. The spectator had their own, independent, in-game camera that they could move around using a gamepad.

3. AR controlled spectator camera (AR)

One participant was going through a VR experience with a VR headset, while another was spectating and viewing the VR world on an Android smartphone with the ViewR app running and connected to the experience. The spectator shared the same play space as the VR player and controlled their view of the game world by physically walking around.

In each situation, every participant acted once as the VR player and once as the spectator. All of the participants went through all of the situations. After each situation, the participants filled in a survey designed to measure their engagement levels with a video game. The results were as follows:

Compared to the common setup (passive), the engagement of the spectator has drastically increased in both the gamepad controlled camera setup and the AR controlled camera setup. More than that, not only did the engagement of the spectator increase, but so did the engagement of the VR player. In other words, by better including the spectator in the VR experience and letting them control their own view of the world, the VR player felt more engaged with the experience compared to when the spectator passively watched the game on a screen from the perspective of the VR player.

Even more, the engagement levels of the spectators in both the AR and the gamepad setups were higher than that of the VR player in the common setup. The spectator felt more engaged spectating the game than the VR player did when playing in VR with a passive spectator. This means that including some sort of spectator controlled spectating mode has the potential to improve the engagement of both the spectators and the VR player. This could in turn lead to a better perceived experience and result in better sales.

Takeaway

Do not stop at the basic and common spectator setup in VR experiences. Give spectators the ability to actively control their own view of the game world and enjoy better user engagement from both the VR player and the spectator.

Important notes

The study was tested using an exploration type VR game and its results may not apply to all types of games. 

Full paper:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341987938_Exploring_Engagement_Between_VR_and_AR_Users_in_a_Co-Located_VR_Experience

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