Want VR to succeed? Then design better and safer spaces around it

There’s something slightly off about Marina Abramović’s avatar in Rising, her first virtual artwork, on display during the 2019 Venice Biennale. The face that launched a thousand MoMA seatings is almost pristinely replicated in the stand-in, but the body belongs to a previous, slimmer iteration of the Serbian artist — her proportions are more Imponderabilia than 512 Hours. This glitch is too calculated to be a technical deficiency. It seems that even an agelessly sensual woman, one whose well-known modus operandi is to humbly use her corporeality as a messenger, has body issues.

Outside the climate catastrophe scenario Rising depicted, I stood in a small open corner, with about one metre’s worth of manoeuvring room, putting on my VR goggles. Spoiler-free but aware that her work often elicits knee-jerk reactions, I asked the male attendant to leave the room — I didn’t want to potentially embarrass myself in front of a stranger. ‘I can’t leave you alone,’ he replied. ‘People tend to hit their arms against the wall when they try to walk towards her, so I’m instructed to keep an eye on you.’ As a result, I planted my feet and limited my hand movements, as nervously aware of the black corridor around the real me as I was of the swiftly melting icecaps around the virtual me.

As human beings, our relationships with our bodies are complicated, and as such we are innately afraid of looking stupid and feeling exposed. We instinctively want to save face, even when our faces are covered by large goggles. In fact, there’s a reason why VR users in action have spanned many an internet meme: on the outside, we certainly look stupid and feel exposed using the technology — and that may be one of the largest barriers to ensure its market permeation.

But oddly enough, conventional spatial design has proven an unlikely ally in this matter: it seems that the key to speeding up the mass adoption of virtual spaces is to focus on the qualities of the real spaces that enable them.

The VR Cinema booths at the 2019 CHP:DOX in Copenhagen, designed by MBADV - Photos courtesy of Normann Copenhagen

Take, for example, the VR Cinema booths at the most recent edition of the CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. The selection in this documentary festival does not shy away from divisive political, gender and psychological quandaries — and so, the three videos on display through the goggles were not necessarily going to be an easy watch. Maria Bruun and Anne Dorthe Vester, the designer and the architect behind MBADV, decided to give viewers a sense of intimacy to experience them, creating 16 halfway booths with curved walls made of cardboard tubes. ‘And we knew it had worked because, instead of sitting stiffly, as usually happens in the beginning of VR experiences, people felt relaxed and comfortable enough to swivel around in the chairs,’ Bruun explained. ‘With this setup, you don’t feel like a monkey in a cage — instead, it’s a very private experience.’

That monkey-in-a-cage feeling is something the technology has been battling since its debut. The gap between early adopters and the majority of consumers is particularly large in VR, due to a negative halo that computing critic Thomas Ricker has dubbed ‘when new tech is just too embarrassing to use.’ There’s also the social stigma around the fact that the users most willing to consistently engage with the googles are on the, erm, geeky side. As the established thinking goes, who in their right minds would want to spend their hard-earned free time flailing their arms around an empty room, fighting in a virtual zombie apocalypse?

The visitors of London’s Otherworld, to be sure. The new virtual reality arcade, devised by The Dream Corporation with spatial design from Red Deer, allows users to rent out 40-minute sessions inside 14 private booths that look like Blade Runner props. Enter the Haggerston venue and you’ll be greeted by a soundtrack of grunts, playful taunts and screams — although users are in individual booths, they can choose to engage in multiplayer games virtually, to fight the aforementioned zombies, win at Fruit Ninja or climb a snowcapped summit. Why separate immersion rooms? ‘During our research, we found that people weren’t really letting go because they were afraid of being laughed — if no one can see the perspective of the person immersed, they just look like an idiot,’ explained Red Deer’s Lucas Che Tizard. ‘And the goggles cut off your vision and your hearing, so you end up feeling very physically vulnerable.’

The VR booths at London's Otherworld, designed by Red Deer - Photos by Mariell Lind Hansen

But even so, what’s most telling is what’s outside the booths themselves: a full-on hospitality section featuring a poké and bao bar, a selection of mochi desserts and a generous drink menu, including craft beers. A grimy shopping-centre arcade this is not. That, along with the fact that its Northeast London location points to a more creatively minded demographic, should be enough to hipwash the activity’s geeky quotient.

So, to Tizard, The Dream Corporation is on to something: to improve its appeal, the VR experience should be made as social on the one hand as it should be private on the other. To MBADV’s Maria Bruun, the solution lies in a combination of safer environments and lighter goggles, for the ultimate ease of use. But what if, instead, this purported improvement had to do with our ability to normalise the awkwardness that inevitably comes with its use, instead of hiding it away?

Part of MORPH's Wings of Desire performance - Photos by Clémentine Schmidt and Federico Floriani

That’s what the MORPH collective proposed with its Wings of Desire performance at Alcova Sassetti during this year’s Milan Design Week. Instead of clunkiness being so, they asked, why not turn it into an earnestly enjoyable experience for both the watched and the watchers? ‘We believe in the theatricality of VR for the users as much as for the audience,’ explained MORPH’s Clémentine Schmidt. That translated into choreographing a pas de deux using the now default movements demanded by VR environments — abnormal head tilts, awkward hand squeezing, constant tests of one’s arm span — and extending them into a new dance vocabulary.

That’s how the pair of dancers ended up looking as if Martha Graham and Ohad Naharin were asked to do a walk-and-turn field sobriety test — and beautifully failed. The white goggles they wore resembled some dried-up bodily secretions, similar to what body-horror master David Cronenberg envisioned as virtual reality’s accoutrements in 1999’s eXistenZ. It was wildly entertaining and equally confusing, but elegantly illustrated its point: what we now see as ridiculous can, with the right mindset change, become an exaltation of technical and artistic skill.

Whichever the method chosen, these efforts should prompt many designers and developers to rethink the true spatial radius of VR. Should virtual creations exist on their own, instead of being anchored in some form of physical basecamp root? After all, given what we’ve learned about immersive escapism in the past decade, one parameter stands true: the richer the digital fantasy, the stronger the attachment to reality should be.

This is an excerpt from a piece featured in Frame 130, our September/October print issue. To read the full article, including an overview of the VR market, you can purchase a copy here.

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