Over the past few months, there has been a lot of movement in the virtual reality space. In March of this year, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for US$2 billion. Sony and Samsung have both expressed their intent to enter the virtual reality market with VR headsets. Even restaurants are getting in on the act – kid-centric US chain Chuck E. Cheese’s announced earlier this year that it would bring virtual reality games to its arcades.
While the technology is still under development, it’s an emerging field in the gaming industry. Devices like Oculus Rift currently target more adult demos, but the kids market also promises to be lucrative: a recent report from virtual reality consultancy KZero says that the kids virtual reality market is poised to grow. From 2014 to 2018, hardware sales are predicted to reach US$8.4 billion, US$4.2 billion of which will be from the kids, tween and teen segment.
It’s only a matter of time until the technology trickles further down into the kids space. And as a new study from kids digital entertainment specialist Dubit and KZero suggests, the demand is there.
In this qualitative study, Dubit put Oculus Rift devices in kids’ hands to see what the younger demographic thought of the virtual reality experience.
Along with confirming that virtual reality was a hit with kids – no big surprise there – the research outlined what kids want from the technology. The must-have list includes more controller innovation, applications outside of pure gaming, and bringing virtual reality to schools.
According to Peter Robinson, Dubit’s head of Research, the importance of the study was not only in plumbing kids interest in the device, but also in discovering what their expectations were for the technology.
“It helps answer the initial question of kids’ interest in virtual reality with a resounding ‘Yes,’” says Robinson. “But it also helps us to understand children’s expectations for the device. The fact that children wanted to see Minecraft-like elements included in future virtual reality games shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – it’s the biggest game with children right now and would be a great fit. But the fact that children almost immediately understood the possibilities and limitations of the hardware shows that game companies will have to create experiences that go beyond novelty.”
Testing out Oculus Rift
Dubit’s study was carried out with 12 children ages seven to 12. The youngsters tried out the first development kit version of Oculus Rift. They played games like Fairy Forest, Chicken Walk, Dragon, Rift Coaster and Titans of Space.
The research showed that kids enjoyed using Oculus Rift, and quickly adapted to the technology. The younger kids were mostly excited to explore and try out a virtual reality experience. Tweens wanted to see more games that focused on creation and free play, like Minecraft. Their most enjoyable games were based on real-world experiences instead of abstract games.
All the kids and tweens liked games played from a first-person perspective. They wanted to be able to look down and see their body, as it made the game more immersive.
Boys wanted to see more shooter-style games like Call of Duty or first-person games like Skyrim. Girls wanted more driving games like Mario Kart and simulation games like The Sims. Both groups wanted to play Minecraft in VR – even after the game’s creator stopped work on a virtual reality version following Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus.
For the study, kids controlled the games using either an Xbox control pad, head movements or a keyboard and mouse. According to Robinson, all groups saw the importance of the controllers for VR, and felt that having more natural controllers (think steering wheels) would help make the gaming experience more real.
“We also got to see how children want to interact with the technology,” says Robinson. “Children who play games now have grown up with the ability to control games by voice, touch, gestures and old-fashioned joypads and keyboards, and now they’re expecting more controller innovation with Oculus Rift.”
“Gaming companies should also be aware that virtual reality technology brings added expectations, much like touch control did. If the technology allows children to interact with the virtual worlds around them, then they will expect to interact with current products in the same way.”
In terms of usability, kids did not have trouble operating the device. Nor where they plagued by nausea, a current problem experienced by some adults who’ve used the device.
“Some of the games required a lot of head movements which causes some problems for younger children, due to the weight of the equipment, but consumer versions of Oculus Rift are expected to be much lighter, so we don’t see it being much of a problem,” says Robinson. “One thing that we were concerned about was any nausea that the kids may feel from the experience, and we were watching closely for this. Nothing of the sort happened: they were comfortable and did not experience any issues during or after the research.”
Virtual reality in schools
One interesting aspect of the study was that kids saw the Oculus Rift device as more than just a gaming headset.
“Broadly speaking, children’s media companies should be aware that children see virtual reality as being about more than gaming,” says Robinson. “They don’t immediately see Oculus Rift only as a gaming peripheral – in particular with its application to education.”
Both kids and tweens wanted to bring virtual reality to school, to help make lessons more interesting.
“We made sure we didn’t prompt the children, so the unanimous feeling that virtual reality would be great in schools came from them,” says Robinson. “The children wanted to use it to explore the places, people and times they’re taught about, but they didn’t want to change what happened, they wanted to experience it. Some of these examples ranged from exploring the Titanic and Tudor England, to being shrunken down to explore the human body.”
The market is there for virtual reality games, says Robinson, although it’s just beginning. “We’re seeing (games) already, although they are very basic at the moment,” he says. “Only a couple of months ago Chuck E. Cheese’s announced it was bringing virtual reality into some of its children’s play areas and we think that’s an important first step. It allowed the restaurant to offer something beyond what children could experience at home. Remember, this is how video gaming started, with restaurants, bars, cinemas and bowling alleys adding arcade cabinets. It was the same with pinball. While we envisage the move from family fun areas to the home to be much quicker this time, it’s encouraging to see that it’s already started.”
For now, look to small studios to drive the virtual reality movement.
“At the moment, barely a month goes past without a new tech company announcing it’s working on a virtual reality headset. So when the marketing muscle of Sony, Facebook, Samsung and others gets going, we’re sure it won’t take long for the big publishers to sit up and pay attention. In the short term though, we think it will be the smaller studios driving virtual reality, like they did with mobile. Remember, there was a time when nobody had heard of Rovio, Imangi and Mojang, and now they’re three of the biggest names in gaming,” says Robinson.
“Of course, it takes time to develop for new technology and this is why we’re already researching virtual reality and working on virtual reality worlds.”
A full copy of the Dubit report is available here: http://www.slideshare.net/dubit/oculus-rift-virtual-reality-kids-research.