Building a virtual reality experience is one thing. But how do you know if it works? How do you get feedback on your virtual reality content from headset users, at a time when there are not that many users around yet?
Testing the VR yoga routine before opening
I had tested my VR yoga experience on 6 people I published it, male and female, ages between 14 and 54. Basically, everyone that happened to step into my house, got dragged to my computer.
All of them had very little to no experience with a virtual reality or with yoga, exactly what I aimed my VR experience for.
They stood behind my desk with my VR headset on, while I sat across the room watching them for 10 minutes. I watched to see if they could follow the instructions, had trouble doing the exercises, didn’t hit or bump into anything, if they stayed engaged until the end, if they looked relaxed and if they looked like they had fun.
A beginner in virtual reality
All 10-minute sessions were fascinating to see, but I watched Lukas most closely. If this musician\cleaner\handyman could make it to the end of my yoga routine, anyone could. He was my perfect subject. A beginner in virtual reality that suffered from motion sickness.
Lukas had worn a VR headset only once before, a week earlier. He wore mine and tried to walk around a bit in another experience.
It took no more than 2 minutes tops before the poor guy turned white as a sheet, and said: “Now I know what this motion sickness is they talk about”. I helped him out of the headset and felt bad after that. Not bad enough to ask him to do it again a week later though.
Watched him find his personal space
I watched him doing the whole 10 minutes yoga work out while biting my nails. I watched him find his personal space, a yoga mat. He stood tall. His face relaxed. His breathing changed, he moved his head and arms with the instructions. And he did the full 10 minutes.
When Lukas finally took off the headset, he was smiling broadly. He talked about how some exercises really were strenuous, about the light fall, about how he focussed on the wall painting, on the music, my voice and the beams in the ceiling. Even said he felt good, relaxed, like “he had really done some physical exercise”. He didn’t mention motion sickness at all.
All my first testers said they felt relaxed after doing my yoga routine in my VR yoga studio. They had no problems doing the exercises. They had focussed on my voice and the movements and they said they felt like they were there, in the room. Present.
My VR experience in the Sansar Atlas
I published my VR yoga experience on Monday, August 21, 2017 in the Sansar Atlas. At the exact same time, there was a solar eclipse going on above the USA. And most people there were staring at the sky.
Probably not a good sign for a project you hope will get noticed.
My yoga studio landed at the 50th place or so in the Sansar Atlas, like all new experiences. How the atlas works will probably change in future, but right now it seems to work like this:
The 4 places in the carousel are taken by the creations by Sansar’s own creative team and the first 50 places after that are chosen by Linden Lab. After the first 50, it is the newest experience first.
If your experience doesn’t get noticed, it sinks down the list fast. If I wanted feedback, I had to do more than hope for people to scroll all the way down to find my studio down there.
So I started by asking a few other creators for feedback personally. I explicitly asked for feedback here on this blog and on the Sansar preview Slack channel, where creators and Lindens communicated during the closed alpha stage. A very slow process.
Sansar Atlas hopping with Strawberry Singh and Draxtor Despres
And then I got lucky. My experience had been apparently been noticed and starting climbing up the atlas. It came up high enough for Second Life blogger Strawberry Singh to notice it during her Atlas hopping trip with Draxtor Despres and their guests.
All of a sudden I had 20 minutes of video of about 8 people inside my experience, trying it out and discussing it freely. Thank you so much to everyone there! I have watched it over and over and will use every bit of feedback I heard. I will try to respond to a few things you said here:
About the exercises, sitting or standing, difficulty
I made this yoga routine only with exercises for the neck, shoulders and arms, because only those can be seen on your avatar right now when you wear a VR headset and hand controllers. Also because they are safe and easy to do for beginners in both yoga and VR. And because you can do them both standing up or sitting down.
I can make future routines more complex and for more parts of the body, especially when we have full body immersion in the end. I probably will not ever have anyone standing on their head in VR though, like someone mentioned. I ran all these exercises by a sports coach that works with people with physical impairments or disabilities so they would be safe for everyone to do.
Would it work doing it alone or with a group
One of my goals was to make the experience enjoyable when alone in VR as well as when together with other people. I have seen people do it alone and it seemed to work, it made them come out more relaxed than before.
I have not seen the yoga routine done by more than one person at the same time yet. I imagine it would work much the same as when the visitor was alone if they were seriously concentrating on the routine. And if they were less engaged in the workout and more on each other, it would simply be a bit of fun.
A smelly, sweaty yoga studio or a beautiful view
Someone suggested if he would make a yoga experience, he would have the routine done “on a platform on top of the Himalaya or something. With a brilliant view.” Not in the same kind of place as reality, not in ‘smelly, sweaty places’. “I can almost smell it.”(Loved that last bit, a great compliment.)
It is a very cool idea and I will probably do something like that later, in a more complex VR yoga experience. But it wouldn’t work well for this session for beginners in yoga or VR.
Yoga is about going inside, about focussing on yourself, on your body and feelings. All decor in the yoga studio is only there to support that. I made the experience so you could close your eyes even and think the whole surrounding away. The experience is walled, plain, small and familiar so you and your mind have little room to start wandering. So you can forget where you are and focus on my voice, the exercises, your breathing and yourself.
The room also helps beginners with VR headsets. Visitors cannot accidentally teleport all over the Himalayas and it helps those that learn to manage VR motion sickness greatly if they don’t have to move and look around much. They shift their attention to other senses like hearing and feeling. When they do look around, they have the wall painting and the beams to focus on.
On a practical level: A small room is easier and faster to make than a large landscape. It took me about 150 hours in 3 weeks to make this experience, including writing the routine and doing the audio.
It also loads fast and it doesn’t take much room on the visitors hard drive. A longer yoga routine would deserve more virtual reality content.
Audio or video instructions
Someone in Berry’s live chat did a suggestion to have video instructions. A great idea and I may do that in a future experience. I felt it was not needed for this particular routine because the voice instructions are elaborate and easy to follow, but it will be very helpful when things get more complex.
I could also try with an animated model maybe. So you can walk around it and see the exercise from all angles. And most ideally, with a live yoga instructor.
I updated the experience with it, so now the whole routine can be enjoyed together at the same time. I can’t wait to see that.
Calming and relaxing
And for everyone that said it was calming or relaxing. Thank you! That is perfect. That is what I was aiming for.
About updating an experience
About updating an experience though? When you do, it falls down the Sansar Atlas hard, to the original place in the order of publishing date. And you have to hope you get noticed again. I think the solar eclipse is doing its thing.
The build of my first virtual reality experience took about 3 weeks, but it took almost a year before I got started. I got an invitation to the Sansar Creators Preview as early as August 2016. I played around a bit and uploaded some meshes, but I felt intimidated by the size and emptiness of it all.
I struggled with 4 problems:
I thought about recreating my Dutch polder landscape from Second Life, but that project would have taken months I did not have. A lot of my models could be transferred, but it would take a lot of adjustments and I would have to retexture them all. I thought of working together with other Second Life artists, but collaborative building was not possible yet. I had to think of something smaller.
What to do
A large part of my work in Second Life is creating experiences, but I do this with animations. My furniture functions as a stage, it has long sequences of animations that help players create storylines for their roleplay. I had no animations or scripts here. I could make a 3D showcase, but that seemed boring to me. I wanted my visitors to have something to do.
Apart from all that, the one thing that attracted me to these new virtual experiences was a great disappointment. My brand new and seriously expensive virtual reality headset made me just as motion sick as the first one I had bought in 2012. I could not even get out of the first room in High Fidelity, without having to take several breaks. I wanted to do better then to build something that made people sick. I had to learn how to overcome motion sickness before I could invite anyone to something I made.
For months, the only people I ever met in any platform for virtual reality gear where techy men in a time zone 9 hours away from mine. There was never anyone there when I was online. Anything is fun with other people around, but if most people would visit my experience alone, it should also be fun to visit alone. At least until there are more people with headsets.
Vision, hearing and presence
There was one thing that swept away all my problems with virtual reality though: I loved Sansar Office Hours. I logged in for about an hour every Friday evening for a small gathering in a relatively small and simple experience. Lindens and content creators came together there to talk about the work, some in VR headsets and hand controllers, like me.
Office hours felt amazing. I was focussing on sounds and on the people around me. I listened to their voices, saw them move and felt their presence. I had something to do there, was actively participating. With all those senses working together, vision, hearing and presence, I wasn’t motion sick at all, during any of the office hours.
Now I only had to find a way to reproduce that feeling, while being alone.
Virtual Reality Yoga
The solution came to me while doing one of my yoga workouts. I have a very small space for my mat in the garden between the flowers. I put my earplugs in for some soft ambient music and for half an hour, 45 minutes, I focus only on myself.
You only need a small space to move around in for yoga. There is an activity to do and you focus on a presence. Your own presence.
I could work with that.
Relatively simple build
I kept the building for my first experience for virtual reality relatively simple, not much more than an empty room. Yoga studios are perfect for that, being barely furnished by nature. It keeps the whole experience light and fast to load.
All models in the room are only there to reinforce the feeling of presence, not to be admired on their own or up close. You could even close your eyes during the whole experience, and still feel as if you are there.
I build the whole scene in Maya, then combined it all together and loaded it up as one model. It took 92 takes. The whole scene being one model also adds to the lightness of the experience and prevents parts of the scene from clipping or becoming invisible during certain view angles.
As little textures as possible
About 95 % of the modelling is made new for this room, I reused only geometry for the stools and lamps, but those are retextured as well.
I used as little textures as possible. The yoga mats on the floor and in the wall racks, for example, share the same texture, so do the windows, door and beams. And the wood on the wall racks, the sideboard and stools is the same as well. I think there are no more than 10 textures plus linked materials all together in the whole scene.
None of the textures have occlusion or shadows baked on them, like I’m used to do for my Second Life builds. I used only the lights of the Sansar engine for that: one directional light from outside the windows and 3 point lights inside the room, at the location of the lamps. I aimed for a bright morning sunlight look.
The painting on the wall is something I made at a yoga camp in France about 20 years ago, I painted it by hand as a meditation exercise. I hope it radiates calmness. It also gives people something to focus on during the exercises.
The base texture for the white stone walls was made by InSight Designs. I know their work from Second Life and they sell their textures outside of SL too.
The beams on the ceiling create something like a horizon, very important for people that experience motion sickness fast, it helps them focus too.
The content itself: Virtual Reality Yoga
I have over 20 years of experience as a yoga practitioner and can make my own routine, but I wanted to make sure the excercises in my first virtual reality yoga session where easy and safe to do for everyone, including older, handicapped or obese people.
I could imagine stepping into a virtual reality yoga studio might even be easier for some people, then to walk into a real studio.
I wrote the exercises myself and taped my own voice in 8 seperate parts, then edited them together in Audacity. I also added some music in de form of 3 songs by Huma-Huma, part of the YouTube Audio Library.
Questions and feedback
I had great fun making this experience. It challenged me to look at things in a different way and I had to try new things. I can already see several ways to build further with this.
If you have a virtual reality headset and hand controllers and about 10 minutes to spare, please try my yoga session, see how it feels? And if you have any questions or feedback, please post them under here.
I love Second Life, but my growing opportunities as both a creator and a business are reaching their limits. So I registered my brand and started working on bringing it outside of that walled garden.
Other virtual worlds
I looked around in other possible markets like IMVU and the Sims, but they didn’t interest me much. Other virtual worlds had nothing more to offer to a creator than Second Life.
Less even, both creatively and financially.
So I waited for something better. Because something better was on its way.
I first heard about the Oculus Rift in 2012 and was immediately fascinated by the thought of a user actually feeling a physical presence in a virtual environment.
I dreamed of creating social experiences, where I could walk around in my own 3D houses and sit on my own virtual furniture, meeting my friends from all over the world.
So when Oculus VR launched their Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, I jumped in and got the prototype virtual reality headset for developers, to see if there was anything for me there.
Incredibly motion sick
I could do very little with that first headset except watch a butterfly going over my head.
I also got incredibly motion sick doing just that.
But it opened my mind.
Ever since I have been waiting and watching virtual reality develop, in hope of finding the right spot for Dutchie.
First virtual reality experience
It’s a few years later now, I have a much better headset and social VR seems to slowly start off. A few social virtual worlds like Sansar and High Fidelity have opened and are developing nicely.
I am even working on my first virtual reality experience as I write this post.
I have thought of something small to start with, but more than just a 3D showcase. Something that touches more senses then only vision and that actually makes you feel you are there, present, in my environment. I hope I pull it off.
I will open my virtual reality experience within a week and link it here, along with an explanation of what I made, why I made it and how.
Writing about my experiences will hopefully help me stay focused until I find a place for my brand in VR. It may also be interesting to others like me, that are curious about Virtual Reality but don’t know where to start yet.