It’s been a crazy month! I moved to a new apartment, started a new job, and volunteered for an art collective at SXSW 2018. I barely squeezed that last one in before the new job started. Three 10-hour days, and then Monday morning, bright and early in the office. Whew.
I’ve done this a few times though. It was really special this year since I was able to help Marshmallow Laser Feast, a very cool group of artists and engineers who work in London making fascinating, playful, innovative tech art. They’re actually one of the major reasons I work in the interactive medium. Back when I was a film student, I would pore over Vimeo’s trending videos every day, soaking in the inspiration. One day I came across this video:
Most of what I’d seen of installations had been stuffy, avant-garde, often framed in such a way as to be as purposefully alienating to the audience as possible. This was something else! I’d never seen interactive art like this. Laser Forest was techy without being about tech. It was simple. Beautiful. It invited you in, seduced you into its world.
So naturally when I heard that MLF was going to need some volunteers to help with their VR experience, I leapt at the chance. Last year I’d helped Chris Milk with his VR experience Life of Us (plus I’d demoed video games at previous SXSWs), so I was probably one of the more experienced people you could find.
I actually meant to write this essay last year because I thought I would do so alongside a huge hardware project announcement, but alas, that project fell through (more on that in a bit). All in all, not such a bad thing, since it’s given me a lot more time to mull over these tips and work them out.
DISCLAIMER: I am not an employee of Marshmallow Laser Feast or Chris Milk. I’m just a local Austin designer who works in civic tech and does art/VR stuff in my spare time. These are just my personal observations and do not reflect the opinion of anyone but myself. Also, I’ve done this a handful of times, in very different environments each year but always for the same festival and generally similar audiences, so my data set is a bit limited. Take what I say with a grain of salt.
1. People need to feel safe.
This is the number one most important thing. VR is still new for a lot of people. People are worried about tripping, hurting themselves, or falling over, but they are perhaps most afraid of looking like an idiot in public. That’s one reason why I’d strongly encourage you to have the VR experience be shielded or off to the side. Maybe if you’re doing an action video game, that isn’t too big a deal, but at least with the demographic showing up for an art installation, the VR experience is going to be a little outside of their comfort zone.
2. Don’t get touchy
This one might be a bit more controversial, because it seems every person I’ve demoed with has made a point of putting the headset/equipment on the person themselves. I’m very against this. I understand that people who haven’t done VR before might be unsure of how to put it on at first, and no one wants their VR headset to get broken by a clumsy demo, but it’s an incredibly awkward and inefficient way to do things.
It’s also just really slow. Maybe I’m biased by having done VR for so long, but honestly I don’t think people are that daft. I’ve never seen anyone struggle for very long trying to get it on, and a tiny bit of instruction beforehand can deal with 90% of that issue. People understand their own bodies better than you, and if they can handle putting their shoes on, they can probably handle putting the headset on too.
3. Use the Oculus Rift
No, I’m not being paid. I don’t even own the Oculus. I’ve been a diehard Vive fan since it came out (and don’t ask me my opinion on Facebook or Palmer Luckey), but it’s really, really hard to recommend otherwise for a few reasons. First, the Oculus Rift is simply more ergonomic. It has a clean design, its nice stiff straps have a super nifty elastic mechanism, and the cameras are easier to set up than the Vive Lighthouses and much less prone to getting confused, albeit limited to smaller play area.
The most important thing though is perhaps the fact that it has integrated headphones, because….
4. Fuck Headphones. Seriously.
This has got to be the biggest pain of the whole demoing process. Headphones. You do not want to have to deal with it. This issue is so frustrating that it’s why I delayed my article last year.
There are three pieces of equipment to VR: the headset, the controllers, and the headphones. The headset goes on first, and the controllers are tracked and can dangle on their safety loops from your wrists. The headphones are not tracked.
Where are they? They aren’t being tracked! So you have to fiddle around to find them. Then you have to put them on your head. Pray that the cord doesn’t get pulled out while you’re doing that. You’ll need to make sure the right and left sides are on the right ears (which is actually important in VR), so you’ll probably have to, like, mark one side of the headphones with tape so you can tell the sides apart, or more likely, you’ll have to memorize which side has the cord going into it. It’s a lot of crap. And invariably people try to take off the headset first because it’s the thing taking up all their mental bandwidth, which, if they’ve still got the headphones on, means they’ll end up tangled in the wires and perhaps dropping the headphones on the floor (where, again, they might get unplugged).
Oculus Rift solves all this.
I wanted to solve this and started a project with my art collective, vurv. Our plan was to build a custom tracked object for SteamVR. We went so far as to buy the photodiodes created by the official manufacturer for Vive, Triad Semiconductor. The HDK was a bunch of money, but some people had put out some stuff on github they’d hacked together from off-shelf parts. Well, it turns out that the HDK is so much money for a reason. Trying to back engineer all that stuff was a fucking pain in the ass. And you have to be really smart, and… uh… well, we’re not that smart.
The idea was to make a super small generic tracker that could be affixed to objects that didn’t need a super high level of tracking accuracy, such as mice, keyboards, or even a beer coozie… or HEADPHONES!
Someone already did what we were looking to do though. Cheers to them!
5. Have a stand available for the mask.
People overlook this way too often. Have a place for people to hang the headset. A hat rack works nicely. Do something, though, because otherwise people won’t know what to do with it. It’s not often people allow you to lay a thousand dollar piece of electronic hardware on the floor. Think ahead.
6. Prepare for a scheduling system.
Hopefully by now most conventions have realized this and actually have a scheduling/registration system built in for their VR experiences, as SXSW does. But they don’t always, and it can be very important, depending on the supply and demand for the demo. VR can be a slow demoing process. There’s the whole procedure of putting on the hardware, introducing people to a new experience, etc., etc. Your line will get backed up. You need to have a plan to keep things moving.
7. Flexibility is the upmost importance for Multiplayer experiences
There is a tendency to try and make very linear encapsulated experiences for VR demos. Oculus did this brilliantly with First Contact. It’s a great way to introduce people to VR in a super structured way. If you’ve got a robust scheduling system, it might even be a necessity.
But if you’re doing a multiplayer experience, you might want to consider doing something that is more free-form and sandboxy. People don’t always come to conventions with the correct number of people for an experience. This leads to having to break up groups, negotiate grouping of people, etc. Which brings me to the next issue: bandwidth.
8. Run processes in parallel.
If you have multiple threads, you can process more people quicker and reduce line issues, but if you are having to sync up every single pairing or group of people to interact with your experience, then you’re looking at syncing issues. It’s the difference between using a single core CPU and a multi-core CPU. Also, in my experience, people at conventions aren’t really in the mindset for a super guided experience. They’re browsing. They’re hopping from thing to thing. They aren’t in a quiet, dark movie theater, focused solely on the finely crafted narrative in front of them. They’re in an arcade with lights blaring, dinging, flashing on all sides. Art experiences can be “arcadey” too, in their own way. A seesaw or merry-go-round is a kinetic sculpture, considered from a different angle. So don’t be afraid to make your experience bite-sized, easy to drop in and out of. Allow people to explore and play with their environment so they don’t get bogged down with a bunch of upfront instructions.
9. Create staging area to explain things in groups
There are a couple of advantages to this.
First, it’s more efficient. Why say something to one person at a time when you can say it to four people at a time?
Second, it keeps people engaged. You’re giving them something to do, bringing them into the process, making them feel a little more comfortable, giving them more time to ask you questions if they need to, etc.
But third, and perhaps most importantly, you should probably do this for your own sanity, regardless of if you are allowing for asynchronous parallel queuing. There are only so many times you can repeat a spiel about VR before you start suspecting you’re in a Bill Murray movie.
Also published on Medium.