Playing it safe: The challenges of testing 'presence' in VR

Playing it safe: The challenges of testing 'presence' in VR

By Julian Mower, Testronic

April 12th 2016 at 3:34PM

A key challenge posed by VR for game developers – and for testing labs – is ensuring that ‘presence’ is delivered for the end user. And of course, ensuring health and safety issues are addressed. Julian Mower, head of Testronic’s new VR Testing Lab offers his thoughts

Without a doubt, we are entering one of the most exciting periods the games market has seen for many years – with the arrival of virtual reality, interactive entertainment has become truly immersive.

But it is the immersive or, more accurately, ‘presence’ element of VR that is throwing up some of the biggest challenges – for both developers and QA testing specialists like Testronic.

The term ‘presence’ is used to describe a type of immersion where the so-called low-level systems of the brain are tricked by VR to such a degree that they react in the same way as they would in the real, physical world.

It’s one of the most difficult aspects of testing VR, but also one of the most valuable if you get it right.

Virtual reality is still new from a consumer standpoint and developers working on VR games – regardless of their target audience – need to focus on presence.

There were a lot of wonderful speeches at GDC last month covering the creativity required for VR games and the need for frequent iteration during the design process. Many of the speakers did a superb job of sharing lessons learned and highlighting examples of what I like to call ‘Presence Hindrance Events’ (PHE).

Events which hinder presence can be as simple as unrealistic audio which limits someone’s ability to buy into the experience and feel immersed, or instances where the framerate drops suddenly.

With this level of ‘presence’ comes a health and safety issue – both for the end user and, of course, for our own staff.

Imagine a situation where you know you are about to get a phone call and you want to kill time playing a game. Using that example, you can see how someone’s ability to adjust to and embrace a VR experience can be damaged by real world ‘baggage’.

So when we’re testing usability in VR we need to consider what real world PHEs might occur and whether it is safe to eliminate them from the environment or not.

To that end we have setup a segregated VR lab at Testronic so that we can control as many real-world PHEs as possible and prevent them from impacting on the evaluation of titles during testing.

With this level of ‘presence’ comes a health and safety issue – both for the end user and, of course, for our own staff.

To address this, one of our most important considerations here for VR testing is ensuring that no technician is unsupervised. Different people have different levels of sensitivity to effects such as motion sickness, so having someone on hand to supervise is vital.

We’re already discussing with medical experts the organisation of additional health and safety checks to protect our staff and to ensure that they feel comfortable when testing in VR. If they don’t feel safe and relaxed, then they won’t be in the best position to assess presence.

Now, if only I could rewire a technician’s brain so they forget there is someone supervising them, my lab would be free of real world PHEs...

This article is part of our month-long Virtual Reality Special. You can find more VR content here.