Speaker Q&A: Rob Jagnow on designing positive social VR experiences


Rob Jagnow is a Software Engineer at Google and will be at VRDC 2017 to present the talk Building VR Communities: Asymmetry, Asynchrony, and Abuse alongside Cy Wise of Owlchemy Labs and Daniel Citron of Daydream. The talk will discuss findings from dozens of social interaction tests that highlight best practices in an effort to foster an open dialogue.

Attend VRDC Fall 2017 to learn about immersive games & entertainment, brand experiences, and innovative use cases across industries.

Tell us about yourself and your work in VR

The projects worked on by Cy, Daniel and I span a surprising breadth. Cy is probably best known for her work with the Owlchemy team on games like Job Simulator and Rick & Morty. Daniel is a designer on the Daydream platform team, focusing on social and VR interaction design. I work on the Google Earth VR team, but before that I contributed to many Daydream Labs prototypes. All in all, Daydream has built well over 100 small applications to test new ideas in AR and VR. What ties us all together is that we’ve all had the luxury to work on a bunch of different experiments and we’ve been able to spend time thinking about the future of social interactions and communities in VR.

Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at VRDC

In our early social interaction testing, we quickly discovered that one of the challenges to creating a great VR experience is getting two people in a virtual room at the same time. This led us to think more broadly about how we can build communities without needing to have a critical mass of players. In fact, I believe that the most successful VR applications will be the ones that understand how to engage the people who aren’t in VR.

For instance, let’s say you just bought a new headset and you want to show it to a friend. You can each take turns using it, but wouldn’t it be more fun if one of you can use your phone to join a shared experience?

Something else we’ve learned from our various prototypes is that the potential for abuse is a real concern in VR. The immersive nature of the platform is a huge part of what makes it so great — but it also makes abuse feel that much more real. As a community of developers, we still have a lot to learn in this area. We want to share what we’ve discovered so far and kick-start a larger conversation.

What excites you most about VR?

VR games are fantastic. Lots of talented developers have already made that clear. But VR isn’t just for games — it’s a new platform. And just like platforms before it, it will enable all sorts of new experiences in education, professional training, communication, and creative expression. The coolest ideas will be the ones we never saw coming — built from the ground up with a deep understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of the platform in its current technological state.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to realizing VR’s potential?

High-end headsets are fantastic, but not everyone can afford the expensive computer and high-end graphics card needed to run them. Mobile devices offer a more affordable solution, but mobile processors don’t yet have the horsepower to craft experiences of the same quality. The divided ecosystem makes it tough for developers to choose a target platform and build an audience, but the situation is quickly resolving itself as mobile devices grow more powerful and game engines make it easier than ever to build an application for a variety of platforms.

Your talk will be going into “abuse prevention”.  What kind of experiments did the Daydream team run that will help reduce negative experiences inside of social VR?

In some cases, we’ve found that subtle cues are all it takes to gently enforce expected social behaviors for an application. For instance, in this poker game, if a disgruntled player gets up from their chair to seek revenge, their world turns grey, they disappear from the view of the other player, and a glowing indicator appears around their chair. https://youtu.be/BoOVVx9CnL8

In other applications, we do simple things like enforcing a personal space bubble. If another avatar enters your bubble, you each disappear from the other’s view. One of our interns has been toying with more humorous reactions like having your hands fall to the floor.

What advice would you give to developers interested in designing a VR experience with multi-person interactions? How should they handle potential negative situations?

Consider the potential for abuse from the very beginning. If you wait until your application is complete, you may be constrained in the types of anti-abuse systems you can implement that don’t interfere with the core interactions. But if you weave solutions into your early designs, you can architect a better experience around a smart set of constraints.

Register for VRDC Fall 2017 to hear more about designing safe social VR experiences from Rob et al. and join other creators of amazing, immersive experiences at the premier industry event.