Samsung Gear VR meets people

Three weeks ago I managed to purchase a Samsung Gear VR headset (based on the Occulus Rift model) and I've had that time since to play with it.

I've now had a chance to sit in the tail-gunner seat of a bomber and shoot down attacking fighters, to see what it looks like to be eaten by a shark, I've flown across waterfalls in Iceland and I've stood on a dance floor surrounded by a teeny-bobber band and jiggled about a bit. But mostly I've been interested in how the technology engages other people, and where it might be a few years from now.

The highlights

I've been extremely pleased by how most people have engaged with this technology. For the most part it is still in the 'wow' stage - showing someone a virtual cinema with a movie playing across a massive screen, whilst the light from the screen reflects realistically off the walls and ceiling often lead to dropping jaws. 

Children in particular have been a joy to watch as they engage with the Samsung Gear VR. One experience available shows you in a forest as a large Dinosaur slumbers. He then wakes, walks over, sniffs you and eyes you closely, before standing on rear legs to eat leaves that shower down around you. Watching the awe and engagement on children's faces as they experience this for the first time is nothing but pure magic. Another experience takes the viewer on a guided tour around an animated solar system, naming and talking about all the planets and moons - as the father of a son who loves science, I loved seeing his face as he toured the planets.

What seems to work best at this stage are animated experiences and games. Flying through a brain shooting at defective neurons and shooting balloons by looking at them are pretty fun, if basic. 

Overall, the experience is definitely more fun than I expected and more engaging than I'd hoped.

The lowlights

Whilst video experiences are good, they aren't perfect. Video quality is just a little too low, and everything feels quite blurry in many experiences. 360 static images are clear and crisp and you can look all around you, but the static nature fails to grab the imagination.

Battery life was an issue too, with two or three hours of play wiping out my phones battery completely - the Samsung Gear VR has a port that can accept a powering cable (if it's a Samsung one) but as those cables are short this is a relatively useless feature, in my mind - especially given that much of the use for the headset was taken either standing up, or twisting and moving about on a chair.

Strangely, the one experience I thought would succeed - a rollercoaster type ride - just made me feel ill and I quickly had to remove the headset.

Mostly though, it's the lack of content that I found to be an issue - understandable, given where the technology sits today, but still frustrating. Once you've gone through the few games and experiences available you're left hungry for more.

The UX issues

A virtual headset is an interesting interface to control. You can look to select/activate, and there is a small trackpad (to scroll and click) and a Back button (press back, press and hold for menu options). Technically that's enough to do the job, and it works - mostly. But the experience is not always ideal.

What's are you seeing?

The first and most repetitive issue I found was in trying to assist others in using the headset. I would load or prepare an experience, take off the headset and pass it to someone. Then I'd press the trackpad to start it. Usually it would work, but sometimes the person would look confused. I'd ask what they were seeing, and they'd describe something that made no sense - "It's all black - and there's a thing over there..."

Invariably I'd end up taking off the headset, figuring out what had happened and then resetting it, sometimes two or three times in a row. Since the trackpad is on the side of the headset it's incredibly easy to accidentally touch it whilst taking it off or putting it on someone else, or for them to hit buttons whilst adjusting the headset for comfort. Suddenly they're somewhere else entirely. 

My neck hurts

I also found an issue with viewing angles and centring of view. Sometimes the device would remember that I was looking north, for example. I'd hand it to someone who was sitting and they'd take over - only to have to sit sideways on their chair to get a 'front' view. Or, the view would shift as they used the experience, and they'd end up twisting uncomfortably to see everything.

Often, even just using the experiences on my own, I found it easiest to stand. This allowed me to swivel and turn without twisting my neck too far and causing neck-ache.

Not as inclusive as it should be

One area that really disappointed me was in the inclusive nature of the device. My current focus is on assistive technology for people suffering from dementia and related conditions, and I held the hope that a device like this could open up new vistas for them. I had the chance to try the headset with a dementia sufferer in his 70's, and was hoping the experience would be as impactful as it was for the children.

Unfortunately it fell relatively flat. Confusion at the interface and options was a big issue, but even when the experiences were 'loaded and placed on the head' there were issues with clarity (older eyes with poorer vision and focus) and also with swivel - whereas young kids and (to a lesser extent the rest of us) can turn the head and swivel to view all around you, older people tend to simply look front and centre and therefore miss much of the immersive nature of the experiences.

It's not a knockout failure - there were still smiles and exclamations, but it was not the hit I was hoping it would be. 

The future

Whilst the Samsung Gear VR is not perfect, it is for the most part a pleasurable device to use. The experiences it offers are not exactly the kind of thing you'd use for hours every day, but they definitely add something to your life and they absolutely have a lot of possibility.

Right now the content on offer is limited to games, media consumption (watching movies) and experiences (travelling down the Grand Canyon). But the future is bright with possibility.

I can easily see real estate business opportunities - for example showing you interactive 360 views and video from inside homes, offices, buildings, both real ones and modelled ones yet to be built.

I can see options for surgeons and trainees of all kinds, exploring interfaces and the world from within. For example climbing inside an engine, or pulling apart an airplane to see how it works. I can see trainers and experts providing their insight and expertise via immersive experiences and walkthroughs.

I can see options for psychology - using a headset to guide patients through experiences that might have emotional impact.

More than this though, I can see options for education and schooling. Having a headset lab at school would allow children in all parts of the world to experience what they might not get to see in their lifetime. Taking a walk on Titan, clambering over the International Space Station - or just learning about the deep oceans by actually going there.

The future is bright for VR - so bright, you've gotta wear the (VR) shades.

One good example: Beautiful usability

I often write about poor user experience, so today it’s a pleasure to write about a wonderful experience in gaming, a pure example of getting it right.

This week I picked up a game on the iPad, called Contre Jour. The game is an excellent example of crafting an experience that is wonderful to look at, engaging, fun and so simple to learn that you never feel too challenged.

Visually the game breaks some rules – mostly black and white or sepia with limited content and not much going on, it still manages to present an exotic, interesting and engaging environment perfectly. Emotionally it engages instantly, evoking a sense of nostalgia and sadness that’s hard to ignore. Aurally this is backed up by a lilting soundtrack that tugs gently at the heart-strings. A sad, unmoving main character focuses that emotion, and before you know it you’re drawn in to see what’s going to happen next.

From a usability perspective, there is a challenge here – although the main aim of the game is to make this character move around the screen, you can’t affect him directly. Instead you must morph the landscape and use various swing and sling devices to get him to where you need him to be. So, how is that communicated to the user?

Expertly, as it happens.

Small, clear hints appear as needed, one step at a time, in context to the element you need to learn. The first time you need to morph the landscape a finger appears with text asking you to slide your finger to modify the ground – with an arrow, confirming the direction. Move your finger, and after a few seconds the note disappears. As you morph the landscape, an outline appears around it so you can see just how far it will deform. Across the screen a flower grows next to the exit point, it’s tip a black arrow pointing towards the exit.

Simple, clean, visually hard to miss. And emotionally incredibly pleasing to play. As you deform the landscape the character – who consists of a small ball, a cape and one blinking eyeball – makes noises that suggest emotional responses to your actions – he laughs when he swings, gets angry when he falls, looks bored when you do nothing.

The menu system consists of just a few icons – rewind (to replay the level), FastForward (to move to the next one), and a series of squares (to see the list of levels and choose).

More hints appear as you move through each level, each only when needed, and only until you’ve taken note and used them. The game proceeds on a wonderful curve of difficulty that has you deeply engaged before it starts to become difficult enough to slow you down.

In my opinion, this is a perfect example of getting user experience right. The game is so simple my five year old understood it instantly, and yet is challenging enough that both adults in the house are stumped halfway through. It’s emotionally engaging enough that you love the experience, and feel a connection to the ‘little round dude’. It’s unique enough that it brings great interest to the table, and it uses interface communication perfectly, to the point where it almost doesn’t feel like there’s an interface there at all.

Great game, great experience.

NCSoft, Guild Wars and poor user experience

It always amazes me how businesses on the web can make such basic mistakes.

Take a store, an old-fashioned shop selling products – let’s say, a computer game shop. It has nice display setups with all the latest games on display, lots of choices, and prices shown on each. You can make your choice, take your pick and pay for it.

If, by any chance, you have a problem or need to ask a question, there’s a member of staff there somewhere. If you’re lucky they’re right there, if you’re not then it might take you a few moments to hunt one down – but either way, you can find out what you need and make your choice, and take your game home within minutes.

This week I’ve been trying to purchase a copy of a game called Guild Wars, from the NCSoft website. I know the game can (in theory) be purchased from stores, but since it’s pretty old it rarely puts in an appearance, so I decided to go straight to the people who make it and buy it from them.

A quick web hunt found their site, and allowed me to get started. There was a shop, which quickly showed me the game I wanted. I could click Buy, and I was away. I had to create an account – which always annoys the hell out of me – but apart from that, I reached the pay point within minutes.

That’s the point where it went wrong.
I entered my credit card details, the site thought for a moment or two, then told me that it couldn’t complete my purchase at this time. Specifically, it said “We’re sorry, but we are unable to accept your order at this time. Please try again later or tomorrow. If you continue to have problems, you may wish to visit one of our retail partners.”

Hmm, I thought. Maybe their website was having some kind of an issue. So, I tried again, only to get the same result. I tried a different card, just in case it was a credit card issue, but again saw the same message. Okay, I reasoned, it must be their site.

So I left it a day, then tried again. Again, the same message. I left it one more day, just in case, and again the same message. Right, so definitely the site going wrong, then.
Part of the problem here was the message. ‘We are unable to accept your order at this time”. What does that mean? Am I trying at the wrong time of day? From the wrong country? With the wrong card?

Finally, I figured I’d contact them and let them know that their site was broken. And here’s where the old fashioned shop wins out every time…
Of course, the site has no link to contact us – only to ‘Support’. Click into the support area, and immediately you see a link telling you how to get in touch with support – which is good. But click on the link, and the first thing it offers you is a link to go back to the previous page. The second thing it tells you is that you need to register to get a support account. The third thing it tells you is that you need to complete an ‘Ask a question’ form – which, when you view it, asks for your username, question, product, department, your NCSoft account, game account (which I don’t yet have) and operating system – all of which are mandatory.

Now, imagine you walk into a store, pick up a product, and go to pay. Only nobody will talk to you or take your money. The staff there completely ignore you, and point rudely to a sign instead. The sign says:

“If you want to buy from our store or talk to our staff, then please complete this application form for an account to become a customer. Then, complete this second application form for an account to be a person-we-will-communicate-with. Then, wait a day or two, and one of our friendly staff will call you back. Maybe”

You’d probably walk straight out the door. Which is (in a virtual sense at least) exactly what I had to do, too. Well done, NCSoft!