VR Should Be More Than a Spectator’s Sport

BY Jeff Peden

Have you seen the new Samsung VR ad? It’s a beautiful composition in a trendy, exposed-brick loft where a videographer captures individuals (and a few couples) experiencing VR for presumably the first time. The video is filled with perfectly-timed cuts between wide shots and close-ups. Authentic reactions and emotions jump off the screen to convey the power of the unseen VR content that is being presented on Samsung’s hardware offering.

The video is by all accounts a perfect ad spot. Unfortunately, it is also underscores a fundamental flaw in the VR experience.

If you haven’t seen the video titled “Samsung Galaxy: All the Feels,” watch it below:

Did you notice what happened in the video? You literally just watched individuals having an isolated, self-centered experience. They put on the VR headset, then they drowned out the physical world with headphones. Besides a few shots of people holding hands, the participants just escaped all human interaction, and you were left on the sidelines to watch. You were a spectator to an amazing experience that you’ll never see.

Now, let’s jump over to another Samsung VR example. (I hate to pick on Samsung while they are still recovering from their Galaxy Note 7 issues, but they are certainly providing some great content for this post.) Take a look at this page from Samsung’s “Insights” web site:

VR advertisement

How do you feel about this picture of a nice couple out for an enjoyable lunch in a bright, airy, fine-dining establishment? Both individuals have taken the time to dress in some very smart, black jackets for the occasion. The lady looks quite engaged with her company. Meanwhile… the guy in this photo is oblivious as to whether or not she is even in room. He has no time for making a personal connection with his real-life lunch companion–he’s experiencing a virtual jaunt powered by a screen inches from his face.

How would you feel if your lunch date/appointment/meeting showed up in full VR gear while you sat and watched? (Just as a side note… please don’t worry too much about this couple. They’re doing fine, and they’ve been seen together several more times on Shutterstock:


(If you don’t get the joke here, just know that I don’t approve of you using stock photos for your product showcase.)

The simple act of eating lunch with someone used to be a shared experience–an opportunity to enjoy human interaction and establish a personal connection. In a society where people are becoming increasingly disconnected with fewer and fewer shared experiences, this self-indulgent value proposition for VR misses the mark.

When we first began testing VR hardware in our office, the Anode team shared several laughs as we watched each other explore some of the pre-built games. Over time, there were fewer and fewer laughs as everyone became familiar with the technology. Fewer and fewer people were hanging around the lab to watch people use the VR headset. Like a shiny new toy, the infatuation was wearing off. It was no longer fun to just observe a VR user.

At that point, we realized that VR should be more than just a spectator’s sport. We knew we had to produce a VR experience that could engage more than just one person at a time.

How could we give the viewers a glimpse into what the VR user is seeing? How could we turn the viewers into active participants? How could we employ universal audio so that the viewers can hear what the user is doing–and allow the user to hear the viewers around him?

In the end, the solution was actually quite simple (most solutions generally are).

We knew we wanted to create a VR game experience. Every game has both gameplay and game mechanics components. Gameplay dictates how the VR users will interact with the game–where can they go; how do they pick-up pieces; how do they achieve the goal, etc. Changing the gameplay during the course of a game is generally unfair, and for a new experience, such as VR, it would likely lead to very frustrated users. (Frustrated users are never a good thing to have.)

On the other hand, game mechanics construct a set of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state. Classic examples of game mechanics include things like power-ups or chance cards, resource management, and randomizers such as dice.

For our VR game experience, we are moving the game mechanics into the hands of the viewers. These previous bystanders can now use a touchscreen interface to help or hinder the VR user as he or she tries to complete the game goal. (Ok, so to be totally honest… We really focused only on the “hinder” element.) Without spoiling the public debut of our VR game, I can safely say that we are giving the viewers some unusual controls over the VR environment as the user attempts to achieve his or her objective in a mere 60 seconds.


Early UI sketch of touchscreen controls for VR viewers.


To further enhance the collective experience of the group, we also gave the viewers two views into the VR world. In one window, viewers can see the VR user’s progress towards completing the goal. This view stays consistent throughout the game, and a nearby countdown timer encourages viewers to cheer-on the user.

In the second window, we gave viewers a glimpse of exactly what the VR user is seeing. This window allows viewers to see how they are changing the game mechanics, and prompts the most verbal interaction with the user.

By combining these elements, no longer do we have individuals quietly standing in line as they wait their turn for a looping VR experience that sequesters them from the world around them.

Instead, we’ve created a shared experience that relies on people interacting with each other and technology in the same time and place. Granted, at this point those interactions are jovial in nature, but remember, we’re just getting started.

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