How Do You Gauge the Success of a VR Experience?

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Stepping into an artificial world is an exceptional experience, but just how do you gauge the success of a virtual reality (VR) experience?

Well, there are many different methods to gauge success, and each method gives different results. VR is used in a variety of industries—primarily in gaming—but it has been used for informative 360-degree videos and tours of buildings. Despite the different purposes, the success of these experiences can be gauged using the same methods.

Within this article, we will go through the different ways the gaming industry gauges the success of a VR experience.

A cartoon image of a woman wearing VR headset, yelling "OMG!"

What is VR?

Through a combination of computer technology, good programming, and expert level design, VR puts its users in a simulated environment.

They can look around them, interact with what they see, and move around. The environments created in these VR universes simulate different senses, including touch, hearing, vision, and even smell (recently added to the new “South Park: The Fractured But Whole” game).

VR is available on different platforms, affording different experiences on each.

The simulated environment and the platform on which the VR is experienced lead to some limitations and considerations.

The platform or device will impact the appeal of the VR experience. Weak computing power means the game might not be able to run or will only run very poorly. A mobile VR experience differs greatly from that of a console or computer VR experience. On mobile, you observe what is happening and have very few interaction elements. Consoles and computers can allow the user to interact with the environment, move around, and take complete control of the character if that’s part of the storyline.

A poorly optimized VR environment can badly affect the viewer by making them feel ill or dizzy.

To get a near-real VR experience, there must be content and enough of it. Content can be in many forms, such as a long story or a gameplay with multiple levels or randomly generated maps. Is there enough content to keep the user engaged for long periods of time, and does the content make them want to come back to the experience?

Virtual reality becomes reality

A virtual reality experience should consume the user, taking them away into another world.

The user should forget where they are.

The world they are placed in should seem real and interesting, gripping the viewer. They will want to keep adventuring through this space to explore more of what it has to offer. This does not mean the world must be photo-realistic.

Games can have an ‘unreal’ or fantasy look to them and still have an effect on the viewer. Most recently shown at E3 this year, Skyrim provides an excellent example. You’re placed in a fantasy medieval world with swords, bows, magic, and dragons. This is not photo-realistic, but the experience still takes you away from the real world, making the medieval world you’re in almost seem real.

From PlayStation’s YouTube page.

Evaluating the experience

As with films and TV shows, there are both immediate and long term ways to evaluate the success of a VR experience.

You don’t want to hear people shrug, “Yeah, it was all right.”

Below are some ways you can evaluate the success of a VR experience and see how people have reacted to the product.

The ‘VR smile’

From showcasing a new VR experience at a convention or festival, you can get a quick and easy sign that someone has enjoyed or even been blown away by the experience: When they leave with a big smile on their face and you can tell how they feel just from looking at them, you’re seeing the VR smile.

VR aims to create feelings, be it joy, sadness, fear, or anything else. If someone doesn’t experience these feelings, the VR experience isn’t doing what it is supposed to. The VR smile isn’t the only way to tell how someone reacted to the experience. Some react by taking off the headset with tears of joy streaming down their face, and others are completely shocked or blown away. The idea of a VR experience is to take someone away from the real world and trigger emotions. Once the experience has come to an end, the user should be taking the headset off with an obvious reaction.

Body movements

VR utilizes different lighting, sound, and visual techniques depending on the experience the designer is trying to provide. Some experiences are made to be story-driven and cinematic, while other games (often horror) are made to be more free-roaming. By utilizing different techniques in VR, you can guide a user down a certain path or make them look in a certain direction.

Using cues to make your audience move their body and direct their attention down a designated virtual path is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you don’t remove the feeling of freedom, the user will still feel like they are in control over what they can do.

In story-driven VR experiences, you should be able to tell where someone is in the plot based on their body movements. Without looking at the shared display screen, being able to tell where someone is in their VR world is a clue that people are experiencing the same thing and reacting how you want them to.

The user understands what happened and why

For most entertainment—a game, a show in a theatre, a film, or a TV series—viewers want to leave with an understanding of what happened and why. Questioning the experience causes confusion and detracts from the audience’s enjoyment.

This need for understanding applies to VR experiences, as well.

Unless your aim is to cause confusion (which can be great, if done well) or physical discomfort (vertigo), your audience should be able to take off the headset and relay what they went through and why it happened.

VR is a unique experience; you are placing the user in the character’s shoes. The player is playing as that character, seeing and hearing what they do. This unique experience means that you need to give the players a basic comprehension of what they need to do, why they are doing it, and what is happening around them.

Reactions and understanding do not always come through story alone. Lighting, animations, or sounds can all add to the story. If the user understands the VR experience, they will be more likely to replay it, furthering the VR experience success.

Reviews and feedback

The most common and most basic method to gauge success of a VR experience is through reviews or feedback. Be it through a star rating system, seen commonly on e-commerce sites like Amazon, or thumbs up or down, like what can be seen on Steam, there are a range of ways to get feedback.

Screen grab of an Amazon review for the VR version of Skyrim.

Amazon review for Skyrim.

Sometimes users will expand on parts of the experience in their review, meaning that part was at least memorable and hopefully enjoyable. It’s those comments, the star or thumb ratings, and the general tone of the review you will want to be looking at to gauge the success of the VR experience.

So, just how do you gauge success?

VR experiences aim to get something specific out of the user. What that specific thing is depends on you as the VR creator, but you might want the user to show a specific reaction to an event or what is happening, be it shock, fear, or happiness. You might want to get the users moving in a particular way. You might want the user to simply enjoy their time spent in the VR universe.

We have shared different tell-tale signs that your VR experience is doing well—or at least eliciting a reaction. The user

  • has an obvious reaction (the VR smile)
  • is physically engaged in the story, because you can tell where they are by how they’re moving
  • understands what happened and why at the end of the experience
  • is motivated to leave a review

One of the best ways to gauge success of your VR experience is to set your own goals for your project.

What is it that you want people to do during or after the experience?