Prompt: Find and try three social VR applications in the Oculus app store. Stress-test each to uncover and use their safety features.
Taken from Michelle Cortese's class slide presentation:
Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Hedonomic Pyramid places Safety as a firm foundation. The pursuit of safety refers to a human desire for predictability, agency and freedom from harm. When designing for social spaces in VR, it's important that we:
1. Use proxemics to define virtual space 2. Establish behavior expectations 3. Allow users to define their preferences in advance 4. Clearly communicate consent 5. Provide quick-action remediation tools for tough situations
The three apps I tested were VR Chat, Rec Room, and Echo VR. Here is what I found:
- 1 button press to mute yourself
- 2 button presses to mute someone else or block them entirely
- Convoluted safety settings but loads of customizability which is all on one "safety" tab - Default spawn point is in a private room unless you specifically change it
- Avatars can still get very close to you and be distracting (no proxemics)
- Block button looks like all the other buttons in the interface
- Reputation system is incorporated into safety filters
- Short in-app tutorial to explain safety features
- Private space also has reminders on how to use some of the safety features
- Code of conduct is located in private space and some of the other rooms that are created by users
A video demonstration of the many ways you can customize your social experience
VR Chat was the first app I tested, and overall is my second experience in a VR social platform. I'm generally someone who enjoys solo VR experiences, or with a small group of friends, so naturally all of these apps were brand new experiences for me. Much of my understanding of how the safety features work happened through the introductory tutorial provided by VR Chat.
When you enter the app for the first time you are teleported into a voice, greeted with a barrage of text boxes that you have to read through before you are taken to your private space. Aside from the usual EULA garbage, most of them were warning messages:
Right away they establish the community guidelines and boundaries in the introductory loading screen of this app, and whenever you're transported to other worlds in VR chat you usually get a rotating popup box similar to the one above with the same messages regarding bans, tool tips, or new features.
One of the TIP text boxes that populate the loading screens
The first stop is your private room where you'll see many of the same text boxes that remind you of the various features that help you block people, mute yourself, mute others etc...
A screen shot of the first time I spawned in my private space. You can see a few posters that demonstrate various safety features of the app
I spent a few minutes getting acquainted with the settings and it seemed pretty straight forward and easy to use. There was always a red mic symbol on the lower left of the screen to tell you if you were muted or not. I appreciated this small detail, as the other apps I tested did not have that information as readily available.
The one issue I had with VR Chat is that all the buttons looks virtually the same and it took some time to get used to the layout. They're all the same color, roughly the same size and look with no real customization options.
The act of muting my mic was a dedicated button outside of the rest of the settings, which I appreciated. The other apps didn't have hot keys, and I felt myself having to constantly pull up menus to check if I was muted or not. This was important because I was using the app in the same room as others and I didn't want their voices to register in the mic.
There are many self-moderation capabilities in VR Chat. You can change settings on an individual user basis, or on a global scale. You can hide all avatars and special effects from view, you can also mute everyone all at once.
You can report users based on your interactions with them. In order to do so, you have to select the user with your laser pointer. This can be a bit difficult if their avatar is jumping/running around or bails out of the app before you can select them and sometimes I had some trouble picking individuals out in a crowd. However if you do manage to get their username, you can also report their behavior through the VR Chat help webpage.
VR Chat uses a reputation system in order to help users filter out who they want to interact with, which I thought was a neat feature. Those who use the app more and more without getting reported gain more reputation. I'm not exactly sure how the system works and I'm sure there are people who find ways to abuse it. But overall I like the concept and didn't see anything else quite like it in the other apps that I tried out. It's sort of a self-moderating safety system, which again I think is a neat idea.
My biggest gripe with VR Chat was the design of the menu where you locate the safety settings. It was helpful to have a tab that says "SAFETY" in order to access all your settings in one spot. But the overall design felt a bit crowded and congested, which means it takes a bit longer to find the right button to toggle.
VR Chat had the most robust safety system out of the three apps that I tested, however it didn't have any proxemic settings. Most of the worlds in VR Chat felt pretty small scale and it seems like it would have been difficult to incorporate proxemic safety features in the worlds that I played around in.
- comprehensive and mandatory code of conduct introduction
- very positive vibes
- No interactive tutorial of the menu system
- push-to-talk functionality
- couldn't turn off spawn notifications, makes it really hard to read the translucent menu
- could not find a way to report users
- gesture based blocking system (which was not introduced in the tutorial at all)
- tutorial level is in a controlled environment with AI interaction
- sliders to change settings, which are harder to control than buttons
- voice modulation settings
Rec Room was the second app I tested and I was immediately greeted with an extremely positive sounding computer voice to guide me through the control system as well as the code of conduct for Rec Room. I appreciated their slogan "be excellent to each other", which is plastered everywhere in the virtual tutorial as well as in your private room and the Rec Room provided worlds.
The code of conduct as a poster in my private space, signed by Coach - immersive
After the tutorial you are teleported into your private room where you can get a feel for the controls before entering into any public spaces.
Personal space, AND an ignore bubble??? How does this work? How do I use this?
I like sliders, but my god are they fiddly
Maybe I'm just old, but I had a really hard time seeing and reading the settings menu. The translucent overlay was difficult to see in some of the environments and it was made even harder by the constant and incessant popup notifications behind the menu telling me who had entered and exited the world. I couldn't figure out how to turn it off, and I ended up having to teleport to my private room just so I could see my settings better. The only issue with that is you can't test your settings unless there are other people around.
There are some good proxemic settings in Rec Room that were not present in VR Chat, which I appreciated. However I tried to test these out and I honestly could not tell if anything was changing. Off, small, medium, and large really don't tell me anything about the exact distance one needs to be for others to disappear from view. So these settings feel pretty useless.
This app is clearly aimed at children, but I found it odd that there was a lack of reporting capabilities in-app. I couldn't figure out a way to report bad language or behavior inside Rec Room itself. I couldn't even figure out how to select another player, but I do like their gesture-based blocking system:
You can see how much I appreciated this poster, and the concept overall
HOWEVER, nobody told me I could do this until I saw this poster, which I didn't see for a whole hour into the game. This to me was a misstep, it should have been included in the introductory AI-led tutorial (unless it was and I missed it somehow).
This to me is a great way to instantaneously stop a harasser, but it's also not super clear on what will happen when you do it. What does "ignore" mean? Turns out it means they explode:
Again, this information was not verbally communicated to me in the beginning. I understand why because the introduction to Rec Room is meant to be very positive and focused on being respectful, and not on how to deal with people who are not being respectful. I appreciated the tone, it made me feel welcomed and excited to play (much more so than VR Chat). However, it's also important to take the same kind of care and time into explaining exactly what all the "experience" features are meant to do, as well as all the gestures.
- "mute all" and "ghost all" buttons located in the pause menu which are separate from the settings menu
- quick slide gesture to open settings
- Push-to-talk option
- "ghost" option mutes a user and hides their avatar at the same time
- Verbal in-game tutorial with an actual in-world character to demo each safety feature
- controlled tutorial environment with AI
- In-world Code of Conduct that requires user action
- proxemic settings with distance customization in meters
- not a lot ton of customization options
- very simple settings menu (3 main buttons)
Echo VR was the last app I tried. This one is a bit different in that it's primarily a multi-player game which is sort of like a combination of Quidditch and ultimate frisbee in zero gravity - with punching.
The actual game is quite fun, however I was pretty blown away with the in-game tutorial in its approach to communicating their safety features. First of all, you have an actual character talk you through the controls and menus. I would argue that the other two apps didn't really have the same experience. Rec Room had someone speaking to you from an intercom - sort of - but there wasn't anyone actually in the room with you.
The best part of the tutorial is that they made you open up your menu, press the buttons and demonstrated what each of the buttons did. They demonstrated what ghosting meant, how muting works. Echo VR even makes you go through a ceremony where you pledge to be respectful to others in the game.
the pledge ceremony, made me feel nice and empowered
The main settings page when you slide your finger across your wrist
The settings menu is very simple and easy to use. They are buttons to toggle on or off, which are further customizable either in-game or in the pause menu. Ghost mode is a quick and fast way to hide and silence everyone around you and it is an effective way to simply abort a situation.
The personal bubble will ghost users who are outside of a described radius in meters, you can decide exactly how many meters you want your personal bubble to be. You can also personalize what your bubble does and the type of users it effects (friends, team mates, strangers etc.)
Getting to the settings menu itself is pretty interactive, you slide your finger on your wrist and the screen pops up. You can move the screen around by grabbing it and you can get rid of it by literally tossing it aside. This was also demonstrated in the introductory section of the game.
The one thing that I couldn't find was any information on reporting other users, and I'm sure there is a system to do so but it isn't made very clear anywhere in the app.
code of conduct in the main lobby
Overall Echo VR game me the most positive experience from a safety standpoint. The tutorial made me feel empowered and excited to jump into the game. Rec Room was a close second but I had a very hard time with the menu UI, which dampened my experience and made me feel strangely like I had less control over my environment.
It feels clear to me that Echo VR was designed after the other two apps and had very deliberate and thoughtful approaches to safety, potentially due to prior experience of other social VR apps. Echo VR is not primarily a social game, so it doesn't have as many settings as the others. However it did have moderated rooms you could go to. Moderation was not something I saw explained in any of the other two games.
All of these experiences met many of the objectives outlines above but each app did have it's own missing features that would have flushed them out a bit more. The menu design was a huge deciding factor for my experience in the app itself. I found that the simpler design of Echo VR, with fewer settings and features actually made me feel more comfortable - as paradoxical as that sound. When the global controls were easy to find and quick to reach, I felt like I had more control over my experience in the world. The one thing VR Chat nailed that the others didn't was the expectations of repercussions for violating their code of conduct. VR Chat was very upfront with what could happen when you abuse their policies, whereas the other two didn't really mention repercussions at all.
One other surprise to me was how much I responded to the introductory tutorials. VR Chat was just a bunch of menus that I had to read, which was what I thought all of them were going to be like. Whereas Rec Room really provided immersion. Not only immersion in how the features are integrated into the environment, but the characters in the game projected positivity along with the expectation of conduct within the world. Rec Room and Echo VR used the game to teach me how I should feel when in the world and how I should act in interacting with others, and frankly I thought that was really neat.