Sonder: An Alternative Method for On-boarding in Social VR
Our starting point:
Many factors, including anonymizing and unmoderated social norms, contribute to negative behavior and unsafe digital spaces. The same phenomenon that happens on social media happens in social VR spaces, but can be more intense through VR's ability to simulate bodily presence and immersion. This can lead to bodily assault, invasion of personal space, and serious harm. How can we create an experience that on-boards users to a social VR platform in a safe, positive way? How can we cultivate desired behavioral norms from the very beginning of a user experience? While in these shared virtual environments, how can we feel ownership and comfort in our bodies, and in our interactions with each other? What can the on-boarding process contribute to the larger experience as a whole?
Create an alternate environment and interaction mechanism to introduce and onboard users into a social VR experience in which the interface and affordances encourage a slower, intentional, nonverbal process of coming to awareness and self-agency within a virtual environment, and becoming aware of and eventually interacting with another person in VR.
"As Social VR Grows, Users Are the Ones Building Its Worlds" WIRED Magazine, 5/21/19
"VR Has a Harassment Problem" Fast Company Magazine, 04/04/18
Concept and Background Research
Given the fact that those who participate in early adoption will contribute significantly to the development and future of a new technology, having a diverse and inclusive community to create this new world is crucial.
It is a known problem that Social VR suffers from negative, bullying, abusive behaviors from a subset of its participants and is not a welcoming or positive experience for many. Abusive or harassment behaviors effect women and people of color disproportionately, and Social VR platforms are known to have a lack of diversity in their user base. This is a serious problem, as AR/VR experiences increasingly play a part in the ways we communicate and interact with each other. If we are to realize the dream of an inclusive, accessible, and positive digitally connected world, we must address this serious behavioral problem.
This means re-thinking current design methods for social virtual platforms.
A vital part of any virtual reality experience is the on-boarding, meaning the entry point to an experience, through log-in, avatar choice, tutorials, and other design affordances that the user will engage with in the virtual experience. The on-boarding sets the tone, gives instructions, and often will determine how long a user will ultimately spend in a VR experience. If the on-boarding experience is poorly designed, leading to unclear, uncomfortable, or worse experiences, the user will leave.
Behavioral researcher Jessica Outlaw (The Extended Mind) published a report in 2017 entitled, "Why Women Don't Like Social Virtual Reality." In it, she articulates key insights from a set of women's personal experiences in Social VR. She identified several problems, and synthesized insights. Problems include: challenging social dynamics, virtual space which is difficult to navigate, and the inability to express oneself. One of the insights she articulates to help mitigate these problems is: "Develop social norms. Use cultural and environmental cues to get the behavior you want." We propose that setting behavioral norms, through environment design and user interactions, at the very beginning of the experience will have a significant impact on user retention and engagement.
In Sonder, we have prototyped an environment in which to foster embodiment, trust, and interconnectedness through shared experience. We have paced our experience to be deliberately slower than most on-boarding experiences, as we hypothesize that a slower, more intentional pace will help mitigate the high cognitive load of virtual reality and foster mindful behavior.
A question we asked ourselves "What are non-verbal methods to create interactions and connections between users?"
Explore a calming natural environment and interact with other people by creating music together.
Research has shown that sharing and playing music together builds trust, empathy, and cooperation, even virtually. By limiting users in the on-boarding process to communication through sound and music rather than text based speech, we hope to foster connection and positive social interactions without the potential of abusive, hateful, or aggressive language. In Sonder, participants engage in musical "dialogue" with each other, over a period of time and through slow, delightful interactions with the environment (through flowers which bloom upon touch). As the users continue to interact, they move closer together in the environment. This is reflected in a spatialized sound system which signifies the changing distance between the participants. When they reach the central location in the environment, under an Aspen tree, the ability to speak using voice chat is enabled. We hope, and hypothesize, that the language used by participants at this time will be more intentional and more kind to the other person.
Environment design: Nature is known to be a source of calm and reflection for many people. Trees are often seen as a symbol of strength, and of sanctuary. Flowers are associated with joy, growth, and ritual. Conceptually, we were inspired by these natural elements, and specifically the connected root and mycelium network of trees. Specifically, each Aspen tree is technically a part of one larger organism, as all Aspens are interconnected through their mycelium system. What affects one tree affects them all. We hope to this notion through interaction design with social VR participants.
We intend to allow an emergent understanding of the self and another being through interaction with the virtual environment. Each participant enters the experience alone, to explore and get their bearings in the VR space. Visual and auditory cues which arise through interacting with the environment help participants find shared non-verbal experiences. These elements, which are prototyped in Sonder, are designed to foster positive and safe behavioral norms, allowing users to become fully immerse in the possibilities of connection and shared experiences in social VR platforms.