Why VR? More specifically, what makes good VR? More specifically still, what makes good educational VR? I am on a continual search for answers to these question as both an enthusiast and a developer. While I may not have all the answers, I do believe I have some knowledge and opinions worth passing on. I also believe that the reasons to use VR, what makes it good for education, and what makes it entertaining are not separate issues. There is a lot of commonality in the answers to all these questions. So with this post, I am going to try and articulate a list of things that I believe help VR experiences be successful no matter what their purpose.
The other day, my colleague and I were talking about these questions in reference to a project we are currently working on. As so often happens, a Seinfeld reference came to mind. Specifically the episode where Jerry and George are pitching their idea for a show to a network executive. For those who don't know, their pitch was to put on a show about "nothing." The network executive asked, "if it's a show about nothing then why am I watching it?" George's reply to that question was "because it's on TV!" To which, the network executive replied, "not yet it isn't."
Why am I watching this? Why am I doing this? Why is this activity worthwhile? Why am I wearing a headset? These are all reasonable questions to expect from VR users but they are also questions we should be asking ourselves before and while developing VR experiences. The answer should never be, but all too often is, because it's in VR! To those who think that way, and who are looking to have me develop their experience I say, "not yet it isn't." The VR medium itself is not, and should never be, the experience. Instead, the experience needs to demand VR as the medium.
A successful VR experience is one that completely justifies itself as a VR experience. Every bit of design and interaction in the experience should contribute to why it exists in the medium.
Successful VR depends on immersion. In fact, it's the immersive potential of VR that separates it from almost all other mediums including AR. 360 video and photos are immersive but they are not virtual reality in my opinion because they are too passive in nature.
Successful VR experiences depend on activity and it's critical that those activities be spacial in nature. VR is a true three dimensional medium so all core mechanics of an experience should feature activity that uses all three dimensions. One dimensional activities like reading or listening are flat when left alone in a VR experience. Activities like these should always be tied to something that makes them more spatially relevant.
The narrative, or theme, of a successful VR experience should be focused and concise. The current state of VR technology also demands that it be relatively short experience. It's not the most comfortable device to wear and we are not yet adapted to accept long periods of complete digital immersion. There are lots of analogies I could use here. A VR experience should be more like a roller coaster ride than a slow train ride across the country side. It should grab your attention quickly but only expect to hold it for a short amount of time. A VR experience should be more like a short film than a novel. The theme of the experience should be revealed quickly and clearly. The plot of the experience should move along at an upbeat tempo never getting bogged down with extraneous details. Finally, a successful VR experience should be like a delicious piece of cake. During the consumption of the cake, we know if we eat too much it is going to ruin the taste. During the baking of cake, we know we can't just throw every ingredient from the cabinet, mix them together, and expect it to taste good.
Beware the replication of reality trap that will most likely cause a VR experience to be unsuccessful. If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the phenomenon known as the uncanny valley. A similar phenomenon extends into VR experiences when attempts to simulate reality come close but ultimately don't achieve it. This can cause a severe detraction from immersion. The current state of VR technology makes it impossible to exactly replicate reality for a number of reasons. Probably most notably we can not yet replicate true hand and finger dexterity including a sense of weight and touch.
Rather than completely focusing on replicating reality, which will ultimately fail, we should accept the fact that a successful VR experience is a work of art. Several disciplines of art rolled into one actually. The experience will not please everyone and everyone will not get the same thing out of it. To me, that's a good thing.