One of the new cool buzzwords you can hear in every talk about VR is “Presence”. The reason is quite simple: the goal of any virtual reality experience is to immerse you in a world that is different from the physical world around you and make you believe you’re there, present in that reality. A true feeling of presence is the ultimate goal of VR.
Presence is a phenomenon enabling people to interact with and feel connected to the world outside their physical bodies via technology.
Anything that reminds you that what’s around you isn’t real breaks that feeling of presence. That’s why it’s important for designers of immersive experiences to be on the constant lookout for anything that can break the magic.
With social VR, the challenge becomes even more interesting: not only does your experience need to make people feel present in a space, but it needs to make them believe their friends are also physically present with them, no matter where they are in the World.
This becomes particularly challenging when people start having real conversations with their friends in VR. Quickly, they start laughing, are surprised, or amazed by something they see or say. Today’s VR headsets aren’t able to detect facial expressions and the avatar face stays neutral, creating a distance between the avatar and the person animating it.
To help overcome this problem, we created a series of avatar emotes that people can use to express their emotions through their avatar. By performing certain hand gestures (e.g. hands in the air for yay!), or by using the joysticks on their controllers, people can make their avatar smile, act surprised, scared, etc.
A lot of our work over the last year has been focused on finding the key ingredients to enable that feeling of social presence. Here are some of the things we’ve found to be contributing in a meaningful way:
- Hand gestures — Seeing your friend’s hands moving and matching their real hand gestures plays a crucial role in making you believe they’re with you.
- Eye gaze — Even if the current VR headsets don’t support eye tracking, animating the eyes of the avatars of your friends to indicate where they’re looking is crucial. It also allows you to make eye contact with a friend, which is truly visceral and special.
- Lipsync — When a friend is speaking, animating the mouth of their avatars in real time, combined with spatialized audio helps you believe you’re looking at your friend and not an abstract representation of them.
- Facial expressions — Adding facial expressions like smiling, laughing, being confused… to the avatar faces makes them feel alive and believable. It also makes for great selfies!
- Distance — Interpersonal distance plays a crucial role in building social presence. If your friends are too far or too close from you to chat, you stop believing you’re having a normal and real conversation with them.
- Self reference — Being aware of what you look like in VR plays a really important role too. Having a mirror or selfie stick in the space makes people feel even more present with their friends.
- Hand contact — Being able to grab a friend’s hand or high-fiving them is incredibly powerful and makes you really forget they’re not physically close to you.
If you’re interested in the particular aspect of designing for hands in VR, I wrote a note a few months ago that shares some of the learnings we made.
A safe space
With Facebook Spaces, we focused a lot of our attention towards creating a space in which people would feel safe and included. We chose to limit the experience to small groups of 4 people and to only let your friends join your space.
Because VR is so new and different, people want to understand what they can and can’t do. When seeing a friend’s avatar next to them, people want to try to touch it, to see how it feels. Or they want to test what happens if their avatar collide with their friend’s. While this may be done with a harmless intention, we still wanted to make sure everyone always feels comfortable in their space.
For those reasons, we created a personal safety bubble that acts as a shield and protects you from anything or anyone entering it. For example, if a friend tries putting their hand in your face, their hand will start disappearing, and they’ll see the edges of your shield. If they get too close from your body, your entire body will disappear to them and theirs to you. This pattern has already been tested in a few other VR experiences as a way of creating some safe boundaries between people.
Another important element of creating a safe space is giving people the tools to control their experience.
Whenever people want to take a break from their experience, whether that’s because the pizza delivery guy is knocking at the door, there’s a destabilizing shaky 360 video around them, or they’re feeling uncomfortable, they can pause their experience by pressing the pause button located on the inside of their wrist, or by taking their headset off. This teleports them out of the space momentarily and into a “paused space”, giving them a chance to catch their breath and take action if needed (resetting the space, muting/kicking people out, reporting content…).
Building a safe experience also means protecting people from some of their own fears: to prevent people afraid of heights from experiencing vertigo in certain 360 photos or videos, we designed a platform that appears whenever you look down.
Doing anything, anywhere
Once we’ve successfully managed to connect people with their friends in a safe virtual space, it’s important for us to provide them the tools to enrich their conversation and ensure they’re having a great time together.
One of the core aspects of the Facebook Spaces experience is the ability to access the same photos and videos you’re used to seeing on Facebook and show them to your friends in the space. This means you can watch the latest Star Wars trailer together or show your friends the photos from your recent vacation trip.
It also means you can explore the countless amazing 360 photos and videos available on Facebook. When you display one of them, it feels as if you had been teleporting where that photo or video was taken. You can now be together on Mars, front row at the stadium, or swimming underwater with sharks. The feeling of presence is real.
The challenge was to design a user interface that would allow people to access and navigate all of that great content while continuing their conversation. While people are used to certain paradigms and interactions on 2D screens (grids, scrolling, selecting, etc), finding ways to create a similarly intuitive browsing experience in VR took quite a few iterations. The result is an intuitive interface that immediately feels familiar. 360 content appears as mini-windows into a new world, leveraging your head motion to create a parallax effect that helps you preview the content.
Alongside exploring media content together, Facebook Spaces allows people to express their creativity and have fun. Using our 3D markers, people can draw in 3D and create objects and decorations.
Those drawings can be used for anything and can also be attached to an avatar, allowing people to decorate themselves. While we could have added countless advanced features and tools to it, we decided to keep our marker as simple and approachable as we could, leaving it to people to be creative within its constraints.
Bringing everyone in
While being present in a VR space with a friend is where the real magic is, we were aware that some people don’t own a VR headset yet. As VR continues to grow, we — as an industry — need to find ways to make VR approachable and attractive. One good way is to try to break the wallbetween VR and the real world and allow people to share their VR moments with the rest of their friends.
The first feature we built is a selfie stick, which allows people to capture their best moments in VR. This feature quickly turned out to be one of people’s favorites. When holding the selfie stick in VR, people often end up smiling in real life, demonstrating the strong attachment to their avatar. Once captured, people can immediately see the selfie they took and share it with their friends on Facebook via a simple tap of a button.
The second feature we built is a way for people to video call their friends on Messenger. This makes it possible for them to share a VR moment with a friend who doesn’t own a headset or is on the move. A simple tap on a button initiates the call, and the friend on Messenger will see the caller’s avatar and the space around them. This makes it possible for the person in VR to show their friend what they’re seeing and doing, giving them presence in the space.