Last month, leading up to the E3 conference, Oculus announced its first consumer-level VR headset, the Rift CV1, touted as being lighter and more comfortable than previous versions and able to accommodate eyeglasses. The estimated initial price of about US$1500 for the headset and a laptop optimized for its use, though, is still high enough to cause simulator sickness for most families.
Since the headset is useless without great content, Oculus also detailed its partnership with Microsoft to bring “virtual theater-environment” viewing of Xbox1 games to the new device, with native Xbox/Rift games expected to follow soon.
Other VR devices are already in use, and some of the less obtrusive (if also less immersive) versions are designing for children, such as Google Cardboard or the Cardboard-based ViewMaster hardware from Mattel. A number of applications for children can be found now at wearvr.com, an independent, cross-platform, ad-free location with the easiest and most exhaustive set of links, demos and videos, to engage new audiences in the emerging medium. (It is, full disclosure, managed by my employer, Dubit.)
Given that the Oculus is for now the most recognized name in VR, though, its launch price and the wait for purpose-built games should offer a moment to breathe, to think deeply about what virtual reality will mean for children. We get one best shot at thoughtful, careful introduction of mass-market technology and content for kids.
I grew up in the era where adults cautioned us not to sit too close to the television screen; imagine parents’ reaction to seeing their children fastened into a large headset and headphones. Mattel, rather brilliantly, didn’t put a head-strap on its ViewMaster unit, to look more kid-friendly and discourage extended use.
Some people, too, are more susceptible to VR’s kinesthetic experience. Personally, I tore off the headset just before the first drop of a roller coaster simulation. I knew either I’d throw up or my knees would buckle. Fortunately, in Dubit’s research, most kids found the experience very natural.
There’s no question that VR will be enormously attractive to young people. What, then, should we consider now, so that future franchises will win parents’ respect and kids’ love?
Dubit conducted research with boys and girls ages seven to 12, letting them play a range of games within the Oculus Rift environment, then asking their opinions and ideas for what might come next and what they’d most want. Here are five insights:
1) Build for lean-forward, not lean-back, experiences.
Passivity has been a longtime (though often misplaced) concern about children’s media. Fortunately, kids preferred VR apps that foster participation, compared to designed for observation only. This was true of boys and girls, with only the youngest children more equivocal.
Many mentioned a desire to play in 360-degree, 3D versions of worlds they already explore on screens (not surprisingly Minecraft), to try out various roles or jobs in immersive simulations, or to investigate scenes for hidden clues or objects. Even with now-passive interfaces like the roller coaster, kids volunteered adaptations that would put them in control. What new forms of narrative will involve children in the stories?
Given that many kids’ virtual reality experiences will come via a form factor that uses mobile devices, without a controller, how will they participate. Voice? Eye movement? What genres or narratives are best suited to what’s possible under those conditions?
2) Go where only VR can take you.
An early argument for educational TV was that it could take young people on virtual “field trips” anywhere, real or imagined. Still, audiences were observers – outside the scene. VR is built for the impossible – kids in our study imagined passing through the human body “as a piece of broccoli,” blowing things up in a science lab, or “changing the course of history” as captain of the Titanic. Is it time for a return to the “Oregon Trail?”
3) Mine the intuitive.
For all children, there’s an adjustment period to navigating in virtual worlds, but age, intuitiveness and being in context seem to make some difference in controller preference. They’ll get even better: part of the CV1 introduction was a prototype for Oculus Touch handheld controller, that would let players’ arms become part of the scene and manipulate items with real-world gestures.
4) Invite co-play.
The old trope that gaming is solitary has been debunked by many studies finding social benefits from side-by-side and networked play. Virtual reality – especially as the whole body becomes engaged – presents new possibilities for players’ avatars to meet “face to face” across great distances, to engage in joint exploration and problem solving. The Xbox Home interface for the new consumer Rift includes a way to see what games your friends are playing.
5) Re-invent your brand.
Virtual reality gives existing game developers the chance to rethink the agency and play pattern in their titles, without losing the core purpose. In Dubit’s study, children mused on what it would be like to be an Angry Bird. How would you insert the player into your story or world?
From mobile media backward to the invention of writing – and including computers, TV, radio, comic books, etc. – every new medium has bred anxiety among parents (or those who tell parents what ought to make them anxious). At the same time, new technologies are often marketed to parents as ideal for children’s learning, until kids’ content gets moved to the back shelf once there’s enough penetration to draw bigger, less restricted audiences.
With VR, we have an opportunity to do it right from the start. We need to show care for kids’ growing physiological and cognitive capacities, consider the situations in which immersion really makes a difference, and make the experience captivating for kids. It needn’t always be overtly educational; kids deserve VR entertainment just as we adults will want and expect.
Meanwhile, we’re still investigating, as virtual and augmented reality technologies and applications grow in kids’ lives. Watch for more on best practices, innovation and opportunities, here and when Dubit presents at conferences like Cinekid for Professionals in Amsterdam in October.