YouTube. Twitter. Reddit. The Internet is one big gradient of rude behavior that starts with insensitivity and ends in outright harassment. Even in Daydream Labs, where Google is building the future of virtual reality applications and interface, the company noticed the propensity of its own employees to dehumanize one another.
It could be a gesture as innocent as tossing a silly hat on someone else’s head, but that hat could spill over the person's eyes and leave him temporarily blind. Or it could feel like an intrusion of personal space. In Google's testing, such offenses were completely unintentional, but people were hurting one another’s feelings in ways that the Daydream team realized was a flaw of their own design.
"[Sometimes] we need to see our failures over and over again before we realize there’s an issue," says Rob Jagnow, Google VR software engineer. "A finding we needed to see over and over again is that the potential for trolling and fighting in VR is going to be very high."
The stakes are big. VR is estimated to be a $120 billion business by the year 2020, fueled largely by companies like Google, which are convincing cell-phone manufacturers to build handsets to double as VR headsets.
When we spoke a few months ago, following the team’s presentation at Google IO, Jagnow recounted some of the team’s earliest discoveries when they put people into shared virtual reality spaces.
"The first thing people do when they enter a co-presence application . . . is they say, ‘I wonder what if feels like to stand inside your body,’" says Jagnow. "It’s a natural thing to do, but it can make it really uncomfortable for the other person."
"Someone is like, ‘What’s it look like when I punch you in the face?’ he continues. "You’re not really punching them! But when you’re on the receiving end of that fist, it can be uncomfortable, because it really feels like you’re there."
To Google, one of the greatest challenges of VR is making someone feel "physically and psychologically safe," because they worry one experience where a person feels casually abused in VR could make him give up on the technology before it catches on. Their internal tests have found that people will literally pull off their headset if they get uncomfortable. And gamers, especially, have developed a bad reputation of making their targets very uncomfortable.
"I don’t think you have to stretch your imagination very far to think of some less-than-welcoming video game communities out there," says Jagnow. "The lesson is get this right the first time because it’s very hard to fix this in the long term."
So far, Google has released two VR experiments to demonstrate how it's addressing the next wave of cyber bullying before it starts. One uses a stick, the other, a carrot.
In a poker demo, two players sit at a game table. Of course, no one stands during a poker game for any good reason. So if someone gets up, it might be in anger, to steal the other player’s chips, look at his cards, even strike him. So Google uses the stick as a preventive measure. Standing up from your seat subtly desaturates the world from bright and colorful to a dim grey scale in your headset. The chips disappear, and so does the opponent. A blue bubble guides the offender back to his seat. It’s a fascinating UI punishment because it’s less about creating misery for the user than taking the game’s fun away.
"It doesn't feel like you’re being slapped on the wrist," says Jagnow. "It’s a gentle nudge that says, ‘you’re experiencing this wrong. Come back to this glowing spot of light over here.’"
In the second demo, instead of cranking down the fun for bad behavior, Google turns it up to reward positive behavior. In shared spaces, when people high five, or fist bump, they don’t just high five or fist bump. Sparks fly in a magical celebration of camaraderie, and the world literally becomes a more enchanting place when you treat a fellow player well.
So far, Google is only presenting these ideas as "findings," encouraging developers to adopt the ideas in VR for their own apps. "You only have so much control over a platform. You don’t want it to feel like developers are in a stranglehold and have to adhere to strict rules," says Jagnow. "But if you can present findings, and guidelines, to help along the way, we believe that’s the way to allow everyone to benefit." I can’t help but wonder if Google should take the idea further on Daydream, and if, much like the company does with its Material Design guidelines on Android, it could mandate—or at least certify—a level of compliance for VR developers on the platform. Because it’s not that I don’t want to one day play some super aggressive game like Call of Duty in virtual reality. It’s that I really don’t need to be teabagged during Chutes & Ladders to do so.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed quotes to Robbie Tilton that belonged to Rob Jagnow.