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The Pre-season 2 VR Special! Ask the Experts: Sam Watts

Sam Watts is an XR Specialist working at HTC Vive as a Content Partnerships Lead.

Sam has been mad about all things virtual for over 10 years. He's had great experience in its application both in the gaming and learning sectors.

Welcome to our VR special Sam! Let's kick-off season 2!

1) Virtual, mixed and augmented reality (VR/XR/AR) are all very much in the public eye right now, but you’ve been doing this for well over 10 years now. How did you get into this field?

I first tried VR, like many others my age in the UK, at London Trocadero Centre with the early 90’s Virtuality machines playing Dactyl Nightmare. Compared to the devices we have available today, it was a pretty hideous, headache-inducing experience but it gave me a glimpse, and that seed of thought for what VR could be like in the future. Fast-forward a few years later and I was standing in a CAVE at Salford Uni as part of my BSc Multimedia Computing degree (at Leicester, De Montfort Uni) and again with a headache but understanding the range of immersive technologies more. Fast-forward another 20-odd years and I was presented with an opportunity to join a company with a small 3D team, to deliver a multi-channel projected construction site training system. Around the same time, a mysterious box with Oculus Rift DK1 on it was delivered, and that re-ignited that initial desire to understand and push the future of spatial computing and this potential new medium. Thankfully the company (what is now known as Make Real Ltd, where I worked for 9+ years up until very recently) agreed and allowed me to go on a journey of discovery to determine potential valid business use cases and bring some of their clients along for the ride with me. My background is QA, project and product management, both on the development and publishing side of things. I am not a designer, artist or coder, but technical industries provide a wide range of jobs and opportunities beyond these three more obvious fields of expertise.

2) There are many different levels of ‘virtual reality’ from google cardboard to the HTC Vive, what would you say the differences are to someone new to VR/XR?

There’s three key areas to be aware of: immersion (technical capabilities), presence (psychological outcomes) and comfort (device ergonomics and experience UX). These three all contribute to the potential impact of a device and associated applications. If a device is low-spec, it will be hard to provide a level of immersion for the user; if it can’t provide immersion, there’s less chance they will feel presence. However, if the device doesn’t account for comfort, then neither will be achieved. VR headsets are either tethered [to a high-end PC] or untethered (standalone). Choice of which to use typically relates to the graphical fidelity required for an experience, with PCs and dedicated graphics cards capable of rendering much more detailed 3D environments than the mobile chipsets found in standalone devices. The biggest current growth area is around standalone devices, with Meta Quest, PICO Neo and Vive Focus devices typically being used in enterprise organisations today at scale. Costs vary from £500-£1,000 per device but they can be managed now within organisations by IT, like a company-provided laptop or phone, via MDMs. For the best ROI, it’s generally best to avoid simpler mobile or 3DoF headsets that are only really used for viewing 360-degree video content (which isn’t VR really).

3) There have been VR headsets and packages in the past, like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, that haven’t been able to showcase the ideal capability of VR. Looking at today’s market, what makes VR more resilient now and stand out from other mediums?

Well, if we’re truthful about what makes a device “VR”, the Nintendo Virtual Boy is more of a monochrome stereoscopic viewer than anything else, since key features like head and positional tracking weren’t possible with that device. But today the devices are made with more common off-the-shelf components, which has seen the cost reduce drastically from devices before 2012. At the same time, computing power in general but especially in dedicated mobile chipsets from Qualcomm has increased dramatically, combined with the ease of use and access to 3D engines and world-building tools. In some cases, very little or no knowledge of programming is needed to create VR content that is suitable for particular needs.

In terms of how VR content stands out from other mediums, it’s all about the immersion of the user and the ability to place them in realistic, or fantastical, believable worlds and situations. Coupled with the ability to interact with the world naturally, especially as technologies like hand and eye-tracking advance and become standard in more devices, the sense of presence is unmatched by other forms of media. A powerful imagination is one thing, teleportation and being convinced you are there is another.

4) You’ve worked on a wide range of VR packages in your career, what is the difference between designing for a typical platform vs VR?

One current consideration is that it is highly likely that the experience you are creating will be the user’s first experience of VR. So an element of onboarding and guiding through VR use as well as tutorials for the experience should be factored in. This adds pressure to the development timeline and budget however, some things often tight in the world of L&D. You have to think about physical accessibility too, considering many VR experiences are require active movement, so alternative input options and interactions should be considered for all users to be able to advance through the content. You also have to think about the current ergonomics of the devices, so asking users to spend hours in VR to complete an experience isn’t a good idea (however it should be noted that recent devices like Quest Pro and Neo 4 are getting smaller and lighter). The amount of information presented to the user is always key, beyond traditional 2D flat design which has been patterned out to death. VR presents new unique challenges in terms of reducing the cognitive loads of the user, especially when it comes to learners, and the good old Keep It Simple principle still applies, but more around the complexity and density of the environment. Making everything interactive or even just modelling and including assets to represent the real world can be more immersive but it can also overwhelm; abstract spaces work best for learning with only key 3D assets presented to the learner as necessary. Another main difference is the length of training and how content is designed, compared to traditional formats. 30 minutes of flatscreen training has been sold, designed and delivered for decades with sales teams well versed at mapping out a collection of templated screens to account for a desired amount of time of learning content. With immersive, it’s a little harder to specify an exact length sometimes.

5) A lot of people in the L&D field don’t realise the amount of learning that a user goes through in a typical game. How do you design an experience so users can interact with the world you’ve built and pick up the skills you intend them to use?

The phrase learn by doing is applicable in VR, since they are carrying out or repeating motions that they would be in the real world, on the job. However, you need natural guidance and apply game tutorial methods to experiences that steer users in the direction you want them to go in, subconsciously without realising it because they are using real world knowledge of logical outcomes and environmental norms. This can be done subtly with colour, light and environment design. Sometimes you have to highlight or prod them a bit, or gatekeep and allocate timers to interactions or spaces since you sometimes can’t predict what will catch each learner’s eye – once saw a learner playing about with a virtual spanner on a virtual elasticated string attached to a virtual climbing harness for about 20 minutes. The whole experience could normally be completed in about 5! 360 video makers use guiding spatial audio and visual prompts to make the viewer turn to look where the action is happening. Sometimes tell, show, do is enough when teaching specific skills or processes, allowing the learner to repeat but also fail and learn from their mistakes, without cost.

6) When thinking about potential learning applications, how would you determine if VR is a solid solution to support the learning requirement?

The best mantra is to start small and iterate, testing and measuring impact and effectiveness as you go. Ways to validate the suitability of immersive technologies for training use cases involve looking at business objectives, and desired learning outcomes and being honest about where current methods are failing or falling short of expectations. In these gaps lie the best opportunities to enhance and complement existing content with something more immersive. Sometimes it’s obvious, especially when dealing with hard skills or training for maintenance of large assets that are costly to take out of operation, or if the environment is dangerous or difficult or costly to take trainers to. But it’s more than just content, have to think about how it’s going to be deployed, where it’s going to be used, and who is able to facilitate and ensure that from start to finish, the right stakeholders are engaged and onboard with what you are trying to achieve, so that blockers aren’t put in your path to success along the way.

7) Having been through many packages, what experiences have stood out for you as being well suited for VR?

My favourite experience of all time is still Google Earth VR, just being able to teleport myself to anywhere on the globe within seconds and explore the world is truly magical. I’ll always remember The Blu as the first experience that made me feel presence in VR. I’m not a fan of horror or shooting games in VR, I think there’s enough of those for traditional formats already and when everything is more real, I don’t want to give myself or anyone else a heart attack. Mind you in saying that, the game Half-Life : Alyx is a master class in interaction, storytelling and immersive world building, showing what is possible with effectively endless budget! Multi-user social experiences are also truly awesome when you bring people together from all over the world into a virtual space to hang out, learn or collaborate on a combined goal or objective.

8) As the industry is growing and major corporations are investing a lot of capital into the VR field, what do you hope to see VR accomplish?

I’m always an advocate of technology for good and the benefit of humankind, enabling us to perform and grow together, to better understand one another so that we can unite in working together rather than against each other for silly reasons. Ultimately I wish to see organisations taking the ethical use of our data and privacy as key important pillars of design and development of devices and applications, considering we are being expected to attach more and more sensors to ourselves, harvesting lots of potentially valuable, individual data about ourselves that we might no longer own, all for the sake of a cheaper device or service.

9) VR as a field is exciting but also seems difficult for some to enter professionally. What first steps would you suggest to someone interested in getting into VR design or development?

There’s a wealth of free tutorials online that take you from getting setup as a developer, configuring environments, and the basic principles of VR and interaction design. Ali Heston has written a fantastic primer about all aspects of design for AR & VR(1). Dilmer Valecillos has a YouTube about XR development(2). Unity is free for personal edition to get learning with and have a wealth of their own tutorials too, along with ones from specific headset manufacturers like Meta(3). But it’s more than just building, the VR community is very open, welcoming and supportive so look for events in your area associated with immersive technologies and meetups for devs, or attend the bigger events further afield, like AWE, VRDays or immersive experience showcases like BFI LFF, SxSW or La Biennale.

10) There are many new technologies that support further emersion with VR, like the haptic feedback chest packs, and running platforms. Where do you see VR in 5 years’ time?

People look at Ready Player One (book and recent film adaptation) and think it’s the future, as it’s set in 2045 but everything in that film is possible to some degree today (OK perhaps not quite the number of concurrent users rendered at that fidelity as within The Oasis virtual world depicted) from a hardware point-of-view, albeit slightly clunky and full of friction points. Advances comes fairly rapidly, having seen the loss of the tether to achieve fully tracked standalone VR devices within the past few years, passthrough cameras providing links to the real world soon to more widely replaced with full colour rather than grainy greyscale. Hands can be tracked at improved levels without additional hardware and eye-tracking becoming more commonplace in the most recent devices. Everything, like all technology, is getting smaller, lighter, slimmer, and mostly easier to use. There’s a lot of work to be done under the hood to improve Field of View for AR devices, but VR devices can provide a convenient gap between AR and VR with passthrough cameras today.

Ultimately the distinction between AR and VR will disappear and no longer be treated as two separate schools, since the devices will do both or a blend between and we’re only really talking about spatially aware, persistent data being displayed digitally relative to the user. The infrastructure and networks to enable and support millions of concurrent users in a persistent space all together at once is what the metaverse really is, these devices will just be our portals in these worlds or lenses, depending upon our use case, needs and motivations. Hopefully with user data and privacy at the forefront of underlying systems and applications that allow us to do so. More of an interoperable, controllable reality than a HYPER-REALITY(4).

11) Any final pieces of advice for learning designers who want to try their hand at VR?

It’s never too late to start creating with immersive technologies and it’s never too early to pick up a device today, rather than waiting for the improved specifications of tomorrow. There are key and valuable lessons to be learned, or mistakes others have made you can learn from, no matter what level you dive in at. With a growing creator community and audience for diverse experiences, we need more people from a wide range of backgrounds getting involved to ensure the content and use cases appeals to more people overall to achieve wider adoption. The key question that always raises it's head when people first try VR and suddenly have a 1,000 ideas of the possibilities, is to ask “Why?”


Thank you Sam for a great insight into the world of VR/AR/XR!

I will be talking more about VR in learning on an upcoming episode of The Death of learning, so don't miss out.

For more of the amazing journey that Sam has taken please take a look at his piece '9 Years of VR'.

(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from these links, They are solely provided for your ease of access).

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