Virtual reality has many problems—so many, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that the technology being too convincing or too “immersive” is really a problem just yet. It is, nevertheless, a problem that some professionals in the field are preparing for.
Imagine this situation: You are strapped into a virtual reality headset, but in a delicate manner so you don’t feel it weighing you down like an anchor. The screens in front of your eyeballs are of a high enough resolution that you forget that you are in the middle of your living room. Sensors track your every movement, making you comfortable and less tentative. Then you swing out wildly and punch your TV, thereby breaking its screen, cutting your knuckles, and taking you out of the experience. That, to put it lightly, is nicht gut—the sort of situation that is best anticipated and avoided. But how, exactly does one do that?
Then you swing out wildly and punch your TV
Here is one solution, as explained by Road to VR’s Ben Lang:
The Chaperone system allows HTC Vive users to map out a safe area in the real world which will be reflected in the virtual world to keep them from walking into walls or swinging their hands into furniture. Chaperone on the Vive has been unquestionably effective, working well enough that users can lose themselves in the virtual world without fear of running into the physical one.
This system is billed as a way of avoiding intrusions in virtual reality experiences, but its very existence points to internal tensions in many VR projects. If the specified space is not of a uniform size for all users, it could conceivably affect their experiences: How do you design for these varying degrees of motion? How much motion is necessary? At the same time, some sacrificed range of motion may be a worthwhile price for peace of mind. If you’re constantly worrying about breaking things then you can’t lose yourself in an experience. The balance of freedom and security—in virtual space as in real life—is complicated and fraught with trade-offs.
In an ideal world, there would be shared standards and constant coordination that would obviate the need for something like Chaperone, but that’s not how technology works. Virtually everything we use is built iteratively—layers upon layers of ideas, each with slightly different parameters. I’m not sure how Chaperone would interact with artist-driven experiences, but this kind of safeguard is the logical endpoint to how VR is currently produced.