The so-called metaverse, a virtual reality universe that promises to revolutionize our experience of the internet, is currently the subject of both wild speculation and blanket condemnation.
For the time being, the “metaverse” is really a series of separate VR experiences on different platforms, accessed through a variety of devices. It is not a single, cohesive universe, and it is far from taking over as the primary way to navigate the internet. But the core element is already there: People are able to move through models of 3D space using VR headsets. Although the term “virtual event” currently refers primarily to live stream sessions that attendees watch passively on 2D screens, a smaller number of fully immersive VR events are also taking place.
While the potential for fantastical metaverse venues has generated a lot of buzz, what’s less talked about is the complexity of making these spaces accessible and easy to navigate. When it comes to planning metaverse events in 2022, practical considerations are the elephant in the room, often overlooked while lofty visions of the future take the limelight. As a prime example, one major question that needs to be answered is the matter of how attendees will move forwards and backwards in VR spaces. How does the most fundamental aspect of the metaverse — the act of moving through virtual 3D spaces — actually work with current technologies? And what are the implications for metaverse events?
For one, event organizers need to realize that their VR event’s virtual venue is unlikely to match perfectly with the real-world surroundings of their attendees. Will headset-wearing attendees end up bumping into their real-world furniture as they try to move around the VR venue?
The Challenge of Moving Through VR Space
Although it may not be the most exciting topic of discussion related to the metaverse, it will be pivotal for event organizers to think about how their attendees will move through VR spaces. Asking attendees to wear VR headsets is a bit like asking them to volunteer for one of those trust exercises where participants agree to be guided around while wearing blindfolds. Event organizers have a responsibility to ensure they aren’t risking the safety of their attendees when they ask them to ignore their real-world surroundings in favor of a VR venue.
Although there are some VR experiences that are designed to scan and replicate the user’s immediate surroundings, most VR events will not work in this way. Unless the idea is to enhance the real-world surroundings (an effect that’s arguably better achieved through augmented reality), there is little point to using VR for this purpose. Instead, most VR events transport participants into a totally new space — a departure from reality that presents very real risks.
A quick Google search will reveal multiple videos of gamers running into real-world walls while wearing VR headsets. And insurance company Aviva has reported that home content claims rose 31 percent last year due to VR-related accidents.
3 SOLUTIONS TO MOVING THROUGH VR EVENT SPACES
What’s the solution? Right now, there are three main approaches to combating the issue of mismatches between VR and real-world spaces:
Many current VR programs rely on hand controls to direct movements in VR space, with the headset wearer remaining stationary. Mesmerise, a platform that hosts VR conferences using Meta’s Oculus technology, employs hand controllers for this purpose. Microsoft’s HoloLens, along with Apple’s rumored “realityOS”, uses scanning technology to track hand movements, which can in turn direct movement through 3D space without the use of controllers — but the general principle remains the same.
Some VR enthusiasts have resorted to clearing space within their physical environment, sometimes even setting aside a whole room. “I’ve heard more than a few people talking about having dedicated VR gaming spaces in their house,” explains Brandt Krueger, a technical event producer and VR aficionado. “They remove anything that might get broken.”
Perhaps the most future-forward solution, multi-directional treadmills are a new form of technology in its infancy. Most are technically closer to slippery disks than to actual treadmills, with users sliding across the surface wearing specialized felt-soled footwear. As this YouTube review shows, many also have a system of straps that help to support the upper body as the user’s legs slide around beneath.
3 LIMITATIONS TO SOLUTIONS FOR VR MOTION
Unfortunately, each of the solutions above comes with its own limitations.
Hand-Controlled Movement May Increase Risk of Motion Sickness
For event organizers using VR tech that relies on hand-controlled motion, the most important factor to keep in mind is the risk of motion sickness.
VR product developers have long been aware that VR headsets can cause motion sickness, often termed “cybersickness” — one 2016 article even quipped that “VR” stands for “vomit reality”.
While there are competing theories as to why VR experiences can trigger nausea, the primary explanation appears to lie in the disconnect between what users are seeing versus what they are feeling. In other words, if they are using hand controls to “zoom” forward in VR space, visual cues will tell them that their body is moving forward rapidly, while their overall sensory perception will tell them that their body is stationary.
Research suggests that between 40 to 70 percent of users will experience motion sickness within 15 minutes of putting on a VR headset. Notably, symptoms of cybersickness are also more likely for women — partly because women are more prone to motion sickness in general, and partly because headsets don’t match female anatomy as well as they could. (The distance between VR headset lenses tends to correspond with the average distance between male eyes, which are usually spaced further apart than female eyes.)
According to Krueger, better image resolution may help to ease some of these symptoms: “As we get higher and higher resolution — the lenses that they’re talking about for the Apple display will probably start with 4K resolution — that may reduce the motion sickness.”
Even if higher image resolution helps, however, it’s unlikely to resolve the issue on its own. As long as metaverse events are relying on VR technology that uses hand-controlled motion, organizers should warn attendees about the risk of nausea and keep sessions to a short duration. In time, it may also be possible to provide headsets that can be adjusted to fit female faces better.
Even Dedicated Rooms Have Limited Space
While some VR aficionados may have set up dedicated VR rooms in their homes, it is unlikely that most event attendees will have such spaces. Moreover, no physical room can match the vast expanses possible in VR space.
For this reason, some headset makers have implemented a system for warning users when they start to step outside a set perimeter. Oculus, for example, allows users to set their own safe zone based on the area they have cleared in their physical surroundings. “If you’re playing a game and you start to get too far out of the bounds, it’ll show you a boundary that you’re approaching,” explains Krueger, who owns a headset himself. “If you go past it, the VR scene fades into an actual camera shot of your surroundings.”
This solution, however, is not perfect. If the wearer is moving too quickly, the system will not notify them in time. Further, if the user reaches the boundary, they will have to use hand controls to move further forward in space.
Event organizers using headsets with this system may want to provide instructions on how to set the desired “safe” perimeter. If they are setting up an onsite VR activity, they should consider providing adequate space between participants to allow some free movement.
Multi-Directional Treadmills Are Still a Niche Product
Dedicated VR rooms may be a rarity, but it’s safe to say that multi-directional treadmills are even less common. Event organizers cannot expect that remote attendees will have their own omni-directional treadmills, but as Krueger points out, these products could bring a “wow” factor to onsite VR activations: “In the event world, that’s the kind of thing that would be great for an ‘in the corner’ experience. And we are going to continue to see development in the area of 360-degree treadmills.”
Krueger also speculates that these products will become more affordable and increasingly commonplace over time.
Someday multi-directional treadmills may be as ubiquitous as television sets, and perhaps by that point they will be more impressive than slippery disks that users slide across.
Until that point, however, anyone hosting an event in the metaverse will need to think carefully about the alternatives: Either they allow attendees to move freely within their real-world environments while effectively blindfolded, or they provide them with hand controllers that will direct their movements in ways that risk motion sickness. Neither solution is ideal, but with the right planning, event organizers can ensure the best possible outcome.