The sweat beading on his face after the first 24 consecutive hours in Virtual Reality should have been enough to send Chris Miranda into a fit of facial claustrophobia, but he kept on going, ultimately spending 100 hours in VR without a break! Chris can be a little intense. The idea of spending that long with a screen strapped to their face would make most people run screaming. But as the Head Mounted Displays become ever more comfortable and capable, maybe it won’t be so wild to think about spending all day in one a few years down the road. Right now, it begs the question, with the current HMD landscape and the wealth of options for content, is there an ideal length for a VR experience?
Before considering what types of experiences warrant shorter spans of immersion and which welcome a longer stay in VR, there are some technical points to examine. Most observers believe we are in the brick-phone and over-the-shoulder tape-based video camera phase of virtual reality — which makes the future of virtual reality hardware exciting to anticipate. The resolution and latency in VR will only improve in the future and there is still a lot of room for growth: NVIDIA showed off a monitor capable of refreshing 1,700 times per second. (You can see that 90 fps is insufficient on 1st generation headsets by walking around or clacking your teeth together; you'll observe the "world" bounce a little bit.)
Most experiences don't feature a virtual body for you to inhabit as “yourself” in VR, and of the minority that do, most don't give you much control over its appearance and relationship to your self-image. On top of that, most aren't fully capable of matching your actual movements. We will certainly see more body awareness in VR as avatar building and motion integration come into play. But for now, you're mostly a ghost in the majority of VR experiences, which is fine for the time being, especially when the experience is passive and you're not supposed to actively participate in the scene. I believe that for physical comfort, you will retain balance better and be more comfortable when you have an avatar.
So how long can you stay in VR?
Personally, when it comes to highly stimulating and potentially discombobulating games like Eve:Valkyrie, I can't last more than fifteen minutes before having to return to the real world to check myself and re-focus my eyes and brain. It's an outstanding game that requires a lot of brainpower and eye movement on top of the interactive controller component. Additionally, the user is twisted every which way in zero gravity, accelerating forward at various speeds. It's awesome, but not for the faint-of-stomach.
In my opinion, VR probably isn't yet meant for long form content, like full length films. You can, but I wouldn't. It's just too long, especially with video content, since 360 video tends to be far less comfortable for your eyes and stomach compared to real-time rendered content. And how am I supposed to drink a refreshment or eat a snack during a movie if I have a headset on? I'm saying that somewhat facetiously, but it is a real issue.
With our partner Applied VR, we developed Guided Relaxation for hospital patients at Cedars Sinai Medical Group. Not only do we love making something in VR that truly helps people (and I've had countless healthy people outside of hospitals ask for it in their daily lives), but it really chills you out. It calms you down. In Guided Relaxation, a 30 minute accelerated day-night cycle re-orients the user and ends with a soft and comforting sunset. The user is guided through the experience by a wonderful female meditation guide while they gaze over an ocean cliffside inspired by Big Sur, California.
Ever hear about how getting out into wilderness is itself a curative endeavor? Well, that same type of effect occurs with users of Guided Relaxation, at least as far as the eyes and ears stimulate their senses. The users' imagination comes into play, with some reporting they feel cold when the sun goes down and hot when the campfire starts burning.
As a 30-minute experience, you can keep it going longer by taking breaks for however long you would like between the various guided meditation segments. At 30 minutes, playing straight through, I first found myself wishing I could stay longer and linger in the beauty and calm of the sunset.
So, the desirable duration in VR is certainly subjective, but the biggest variables in my opinion are gauged by asking the following questions: Is the experience relaxing you? Does it beg for your attention? Is it stimulating, perhaps pushing the limits on viewer comfort? Interactive, or even addicting? By answering these questions for any experience, you'll have a pretty good idea of how long users are going to want to be in the headset.
Intense -> less time in VR
Relaxing -> more time in VR
For creators and developers, it is important for us to gauge how to ultimately deliver satisfaction, figuring out where the world really needs VR to help and/or entertain us.
For industry events like VRLA, I think it is vital for healthy turnover that companies aim for 3 minute experiences. This will maximize eyeballs during these occasions for a company’s own promotion, allow enough time for immersion in a given experience, and allow users to try a myriad of different companies’ experiences to optimize their own time at the conference. People get restless when the line doesn't move every three minutes.
Creatively, VR is a limitless medium. When it comes to making the user comfortable, it's important to match the length of the experience and its core objective with future users’ propensity for tolerating their stay inside VR, especially in the earlier stages of the technology.