Modes, Materials and Performance in the Design of Location-based VR

Dylan Yamada-Rice
7 min readJul 16, 2019

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How do modes, materials and performance affect the design of a virtual reality experience? Here I review some location-based VR experiences from Japan in relation to these three areas to offer some insight for future development.

The VR Park Shibuya is an arcade hosting location-based VR experiences. These are site specific content designed for VR play away from the home setting. As a result, location-based VR experiences often have a physical component which provides a different experience to that which can be achieved on a home console such as the Play Station VR. This is something more akin to fit in with the ‘experience economy’ and thus in the best case scenarios the physical set can bring an extra dimension to the VR play worthy of making an audience feel they are paying for an “experience” they could not have elsewhere.

The VR Park occupies one floor of a well established game centre. Each floor is dedicated to different types of gaming content. The ground floor for example has mostly prize based games like the UFO catcher below:

UFO Catcher

The next floor up had more established arcade games. Moving through these games I realised how polished they were compared to the VR experiences we encountered next. Many of the established arcade games follow a similar aesthetic style and gaming mechanic to others in the same genre. By contrast the VR experiences were more experimental in how they had employed physical components, as well as the aesthetic style and mechanics of the virtual experience. Sometimes elements of the experiences were so rough and ready that they were stuck together with duct tape to create an illusion or tool not yet in main stream production.

I made notes about each of the experiences I tried in order to understand how they related to different modes of communication and materials to think about what each brought to the various overall experiences. Gunther Kress (2010) states that modal choices are brought together to produce one overall text with each mode playing a distinct role: ‘Each mode does a specific thing: image shows what takes too long to read, and writing names would be difficult to show’ (p. 1). Kress goes on to say that each mode lends itself to ‘doing different kinds of semiotic work; and each has distinct potential for meaning.’ (ibid). Given that the design and production of location-based VR experiences is so new an understanding is needed of how the ways in which modes and materials are used adds or distracts from the overall experience.

In my teaching on the MA in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art this is something I ask students to think about when designing their own work. The following is an example of how MA IED graduate Felix Scholder responded to this with his VR experience about Netsuke:

Work by Felix Scholder, Royal College of Art

Several of the experiences also raised wider questions for the development of VR and these are outlined next too.

Truck Coaster

This experience consisted of a physical truck of a roller coaster combined with the VR experience of travelling through rail tracks in a jungle. The experience ended by crashing the audience into a pile of hidden gold treasure.

Truck Coaster, VR Park Shibuya Japan

Physical Materials: Roller coaster truck with metal hand rails. Large enough for four players to use the experience at the same time.

On-boarding: Seat belt on, staff state to hold the hand rails throughout the experience. They also helped each player put the headset on.

Visual Aesthetic: Low modality

Sound: Narration of emotions

I ended up playing this game twice and this got me thinking about repeat play. The first time I felt the emotions that had been designed for me to experience but the second time around there were no surprises and as a result I felt less emotional heightened.

Across the course of the field trip, I began to think about how important or not it is for a game to offer a repeatable experience. Talking with our industry partners Hashilus and the Location-based VR Association about this, they mentioned that some games are designed so that the VR element can be updated without the need to engineer a new physical experience. If this is the case how far can a VR experience where the audience needs to sit in a roller coaster truck be pushed? Different types of setting for the rollercoaster? Would that be its limitation?

What makes a location-based VR experience suitable for repeat play?

Angus and I talked about the emotional narration in this experience. A constant narrative about how the experience feels. Angus said he thought this was to compensate for the fact that although you are on the ride other people you cannot share the emotional experience with them as such, because you are largely separated by the HMD and the soundtrack for the experience. I noted that it also seems to follow a pattern of emotional narration that can be found in more wide spread examples of Japanese meaning making practices:

‘Often in Japanese rather than information-sharing, it is the subtextual emotion-sharing that forms the heart of communication’

Maynard, 1993, p.4

Is the need for emotional narration a universal or a culturally-specific need?

Soloman’s Carpet

This is a two-player experience designed and made by Hashilus.

Soloman’s Carpet by Hashilus

Physical Materials: Rug with a roped barrier around it. The rug can be felt under foot and thus provides a level of grounding. The rope gives the user something to hold onto and another link to the physical world while in the virtual one.

MU VR

MU VR was a social game in which we started by sitting around a table designed to look like a conference room. We were given a mission that as news reporters we would find ourself on another planet and have the chance to photograph aliens. The reporter to capture the best image would be crowned “top scoop” and have their picture published in a magazine.

Instructions for MU VR

Physical Materials: A circular table with chairs around it.

Visual: The table in the Virtual space looked different form the physical one we were sat at. Does this matter?

The game got me thinking about the variety of ways in which players need to be on-boarded into VR experiences While we were waiting to play MU VR I was given the above instructions to read. They made little sense to me ahead of being in the experience. There were also instructions in the game itself and a member of staff stood by to help us play too. When we visited our industry partners Hashilus and the Location-based VR Association we were told how one of the biggest resources for location-based VR experiences is the need to have staff to facilitate use, and they were trying to find means to reduce this cost by exploring ways for all the on-boarding to take place in the experience itself. This can be seen in the example below where the instructions for how to put on the HMD are situated on a screen next to where money is inserted to enable use:

Instructions by Hashilus for self on-boarding

Jungle Bungee VR

In this experience it became clear that there is also an opportunity for the on-boarding to play a role in getting the audience into character for the VR experience too. Before being allowed to take part in the Bungee experience I was asked by staff to sign a waiver form in the event of accident or death. Our group were left unsure as to whether this was an actual waiver or just to put you in the mood for the experience and heighten some tension a head of the jump in the same way a bungee jump in the physical world might do.

Jungle Bungee VR

Overall the experiences I tried at the VR park gave me a chance to begin reflecting on the role of modes, materials and performance in designing a location-based VR experience.

References

-Kress, G. (2010) Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. Oxon: Routledge.
-Maynard, S. (1993) Discourse Modality: Subjectivity, Emotion and Voice in the Japanese Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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