#430: Opting Out of a Phobia with VR

Theresa-DuringerTheresa Duringer has a fear of flying, and rather than treating her aviophobia with VR exposure therapy she’s been experimenting with using VR to just completely opt out of the real-life signals of the flying experience altogether. She’s found some anecdotal success of avoiding some of her fear of flying triggers just by using the transportive elements of VR. I don’t expect that this approach would work for very many other phobias since being in VR requires you to be stationary and completely isolated from your immediate surroundings for an extended period of time, which works well for flying.

I had a chance to catch up with Theresa at SXSW where she was giving a presentation titled “Game Design for VR Pioneers.” She’s the CEO of Temple Gates Games where she has helped design the VR titles of Bazaar and Ascension VR. She talks about some of her VR design best practices as well as her personal experience of the power of VR in helping her to better cope with her physiological and stress responses to flying.


Here’s the recording of Theresa’s “Game Design for VR Pioneers” talk from SXSW.

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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So in today's episode, I have Teresa Derringer, who is the CEO of Temple Gate Games and was at South by Southwest this year talking about game design for VR pioneers. So she was sharing some of her best practices and lessons learned from designing her game Bazaar, as well as the multiplayer game that was just released called Ascension VR. And so Teresa also talks about her process of overcoming the fear of flying through VR, not through exposure therapy, but by just simply opting out of the flying experience and being able to completely escape and immerse herself into a VR experience to take away all the external stimuli of flying on a plane. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. This is a paid sponsored ad by the Intel Core i7 processor. You might be asking, what's the CPU have to do with VR? Well, it processes all the game logic and multiplayer data, physics simulation and spatialized audio. It also calculates the positional tracking, which is only going to increase as more and more objects are tracked. It also runs all of your other PC apps that you may be running when you're within a virtualized desktop environment. And there's probably a lot of other things that it'll do in VR that we don't even know about yet. So Intel asked me to share my process, which is that I decided to future-proof my PC by selecting the Intel Core i7 processor. So this interview with Teresa happened at the South by Southwest conference that was happening in Austin, Texas on March 17th, 2016. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:55.139] Theresa Duringer: Hi, I'm Teresa Derringer, CEO of Temple Gates Games, and we make VR games for multiple platforms, including the Gear, Oculus Rift, Vive, and other headsets out there.

[00:02:07.410] Kent Bye: So we're here at South by Southwest, so maybe you could tell me a little bit about what you're presenting here today.

[00:02:13.043] Theresa Duringer: Today, I did a talk. It was called Game Design for VR Pioneers. And I started out by looking back at the 90s and looking at Web 1.0. It was cluttered. It was a mess. And I looked at how we could figure out what was the transition to a cleaner design, a cleaner interface for everyone, and apply some of those lessons to VR. Because I'm seeing a lot of similar messes in VR, design-wise. And I think we need some help with that.

[00:02:39.034] Kent Bye: So what was the turning point, or what did it look like before, and then what did it look like after with the web?

[00:02:44.957] Theresa Duringer: Well, if you remember back, if you were around in the 90s, you can remember a lot of animated GIFs everywhere, scrolling marquees, a lot of blink tags, just kind of a cacophony. And the point of all that stuff was to attract the user's attention. to a feature the developer wanted to engage with. And eventually, standards came along and resolved that problem. So once you had things like the login UI always appearing in the upper right-hand corner, now the developer doesn't have to visually sell that to the user. The user just knows about it. And so once you have these standards, design can get a lot more clean. So I'm thinking about VR and how we're going to derive those standards from the pool of mechanics and content that we're coming up with right now.

[00:03:26.810] Kent Bye: So what are some of the metaphorically equivalent messes that you're seeing in VR right now?

[00:03:31.912] Theresa Duringer: Well, back with GeoCities, you had issues with attentional manipulation, how to get someone to look at a feature. And I'm seeing the same thing with VR. And it's even more amplified, because in VR, you have 360 degrees of visual freedom. So if you want your player to look in a particular direction, you need to figure out how to get them to do that. You have to manipulate them or coax them in some visual, usually, way. So one thing I've done in my work is have a shooting star that spawns in front of the first-person camera. And that shooting star moves where I want them to look. And there's a lot of different techniques you can do. You can do particle effects at the periphery that will kind of draw the eye along. You can do animated characters. You can do animated text. There's a lot of things that people will do. But you keep adding things and adding things and adding things. and it just kind of explodes into a big mess.

[00:04:17.257] Kent Bye: And so starting with the web, and then where do you go from there in the presentation in terms of some of the insights into VR design?

[00:04:24.978] Theresa Duringer: Well, I think that there's a really interesting thing that I'm seeing, which is the fact that VR has sort of a natural lack of abstraction. So if you think back to some of the first computer games like Pong and Minesweeper, those are very heavy on abstraction. There are circles and squares and symbols, and in VR, You're typically in first-person perspective, and that implies a lot. So it implies perspective. It implies a sky, because you have to draw something if the user's going to look up. Think back to earlier computer games. What did the sky look like in Minesweeper? The developer didn't have to solve that. And because of this, I think we have a realism in VR that we don't necessarily have in other previous gaming media. And I'm not talking about an aesthetic realism, necessarily. I'm talking about a one-to-one relationship between the player and the game. So for example, if you have something like a reflective surface in your VR game and your avatar looks at it, they're going to expect to see an avatar reflection back. So you have to design that avatar. So there's just a lot more variables that you have to solve in VR that we didn't have to solve before. And that can be a challenge, it can be tricky, and it can be kind of a mess.

[00:05:34.140] Kent Bye: So what are the biggest VR design principles that you were trying to communicate today?

[00:05:39.340] Theresa Duringer: Well, I don't have as many prescriptions for people. I have a lot of mistakes that I have made and I've learned from, so I tell people a lot about those mistakes so that they don't have to make the same ones. So I guess one of them is, I think it can be a big mistake to design for what can I do with VR that I can't do anywhere else. I initially did a lot of design with that. I think it can lead you down some unfortunate rabbit holes. For example, you have accelerometer data. So I implemented this nodding your head or shaking your head to accept or reject a quest. And I thought that was really neat, but I found that actually if you tell someone to nod their head, there's a really wide range of behaviors that a player will go through. Straight down to people will shake their head horizontally if you ask them to nod. And if your code is going to support accepting all this wide range of movements as a nod, you're going to get a lot of false positives. So I actually go back and I have a button that says yes or no. So there's this great quote from Jurassic Park that I put in my talk, which is Jeff Goldblum saying, you were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think of whether or not you should. And I think there's a lot of gimmicks that people are doing because they want to try something new, but those aren't necessarily the best designs. And one more example of that is I put my UI originally in the sky. It was literally a heads-up display, and it was really beautiful and a really cool aha moment, but it's uncomfortable for players to look to the sky very frequently, as frequently as you'd want to access a UI. And people don't think to look for their inventory in the constellations. So I ended up putting a box on their carpet and that works great. People know to look for it there. So a lot of my prescriptions were around how to focus on intuition and draw your designs on what's going to be the most intuitive thing.

[00:07:18.661] Kent Bye: And how are you actually sketching out or planning out a scene? Are you doing like two-dimensional storyboards or are you actually just in the Unity editor just kind of greyboxing things around?

[00:07:28.775] Theresa Duringer: Well, we have kind of a kooky thing on our team. We have a custom engine, so we're not actually using Unity. And my background is a little bit more visual, so I just start in Photoshop, and I start thinking about what I want to see in painting there, and then we go to 3D modeling from there.

[00:07:44.685] Kent Bye: And what have you seen as being really good examples of VR design?

[00:07:50.820] Theresa Duringer: So I really appreciate when people take the best practices of what not to do and flip them on their head. I love that sort of rebellious design spirit. So I really appreciated the team that created Coloss. I think everyone has accepted that you can't do a dolly shot in VR. You can't do a pan because that will make your user sick and you never want to do that. But I think they found a really smart way to do that by reducing a lot of the visual artifacts and things that were in the scene so that they could do a successful pan. So people who put that design energy into coming up with a way to do something that no one else has figured out a way to do before, I get really excited about.

[00:08:26.555] Kent Bye: Were there any other big moments or insights that you were trying to communicate today?

[00:08:31.796] Theresa Duringer: I have a fear of flying, and that has really impacted me through my life, but it's also impacted my game development. So coming to VR, I was pretty skeptical. And what happened for me that changed my mind was I went on a flight, and I took VR. Even though I know my fear is irrational, I have a lot of real physiological manifestations. You know, I break out in hives, for example, and I'm sweating bullets. After an hour in VR, I noticed something crazy, which was that my hands were completely dry, which is something I have not experienced for years on a flight. And I really started thinking about the absolute shutdown of external stimuli. You can really turn the world off. You can opt out of an experience in your life. We've never been able to do that ever before. And in as much as you can opt out of something, you can opt into something else. And so People have all these experiences and think they're in different places. You thought you were in your bed this morning. You thought you walked over here. You think you're in this hallway now because your eyes are telling you that. And in VR, we have an opportunity to have our eyes tell us something that might conflict with our actual GPS location. But as far as your experience is concerned, you really are those new places. So you really have this personal transporter, effectively. And I think that is just the craziest, coolest thing. And I'm so excited about it.

[00:09:49.526] Kent Bye: That's a really interesting way to phrase it is to opt out of an experience in the moment to be able to opt in into a VR experience. And what do you think the implications of that are?

[00:09:58.891] Theresa Duringer: I think you can get a little bit alarmist and maybe a little dystopian terrified of escapism and people rejecting difficult situations in their life, but I think the opportunity to get something you might not have access to beyond gaming. Maybe you have access to an education that you didn't have before, or maybe you live in an area with lots of pollution and you have access to a beautiful national park that you might not have had access or the money to travel to. I think people can be a little bit worried about what's going to come with this new technology, which seems pretty par for the course with new technology. But I'm just really excited about what we can do with it for good.

[00:10:37.090] Kent Bye: Why are you so excited or passionate about VR right now?

[00:10:40.674] Theresa Duringer: Well I'm a VR game developer so I think there is a little bit of I'm drinking the Kool-Aid because I've already invested time and my life into this but I'm also just really excited because the community is super awesome and willing to share things. I think there's a little bit of a utopian sort of zeitgeist of everyone just wanting to help each other out right now and that just keeps me fueled.

[00:11:06.232] Kent Bye: So there was some video series that you were showing that you were trying to give yourself some exposure therapy to your fear of flights. Maybe you could talk a bit about that self-examination with VR.

[00:11:15.817] Theresa Duringer: That's what I was mentioning with the flight stuff. So I actually studied neuroscience and psychology when I was in college. And I remember the way that people talked about dealing with phobia was with exposure therapy. And I want to buy into that because it's this established method. But I personally, very anecdotally, keep going on more flights, and it's not making me feel better. It's making me stressed out. And what I want to do is give myself an opportunity to just extract myself from all of that, all the stimuli that's going to remind me that I'm on a flight. I like the idea of removal and I haven't seen as much research in that direction, the sort of negative rather than the positive. I don't really want more planes in my life. I just want to not have to think about it so that I'm not distracted and I can focus on the stuff I am excited about.

[00:12:02.021] Kent Bye: Interesting, yeah. My understanding of exposure therapy is that there are certain thresholds that you're trying to progressively move yourself down towards. And so actually jumping on a flight is like going way beyond that threshold because you're kind of already past that. And so I think the idea with VR exposure therapy, like companies like Sios is that you could start to get a virtual experience of getting onto a plane. So you can see the visual input of that, but yet, you know, if you have any of the physiological effects, you could take it off any moment. But the idea is that if you slowly adapt yourself to it, then perhaps when you actually need to get on a flight, then it wouldn't be so bad.

[00:12:39.405] Theresa Duringer: I think that is a very noble idea and I think that it's great that people are working on that. So that is great. I think if you don't have to experience a flight because you can just hop into VR and do something that makes you more happy, I'm not sure that there is a need to invest in a lot of time. Ramping up to dealing with a particular stimuli because if you just don't have to expose yourself to that stimuli Maybe that's a weird investment. But also I'm not a scientist and I don't want to step on anyone's toes I think that people are doing a lot of fantastic research.

[00:13:09.252] Kent Bye: So well, it sounds like what you're doing is a little bit of like self-research You're you're solving a real problem Like you actually have to fly around and go to these places and that You're using VR to make it a better experience and it sounds like anecdotally at least it's helping

[00:13:23.099] Theresa Duringer: Yeah, absolutely. But please just take it with a grain of salt. I am absolutely invested because I am a VR developer, so I wanted it to work. What I really want to see is more people, more research. Take a galvanic skin response test. You know, measure the sweat. That's a very easy thing to measure. You know, factor in the turbulence from the accelerometer data. There's ways we can figure this out without me just telling a story and saying, hey, I'm a VR developer and VR solved my fear of flying. And that's what I want to see is more people trying this and more actual scientific research.

[00:13:51.506] Kent Bye: So maybe you could talk a little bit about your game. And it's going on different platforms, it sounds like. So talk a bit about that experience of what it is and where is it going now.

[00:14:01.105] Theresa Duringer: Yeah, so the Bazaar game that we made is a flying carpet game, and that is on the gear right now. It's on the Oculus Store as a launch title. It'll be on the Oculus Rift coming out soon. It'll be on the Vive coming out very soon. And my team is really focused right now on working on some really cool multiplayer experiences, and actually we just got this week multiplayer going across platforms. So if you're in the Vive, you can be playing against someone in the Oculus Rift. So I want to talk more about that, but we haven't announced too much yet. But I'm super freaking excited about it.

[00:14:32.207] Kent Bye: Yeah, I just came back from GDC, and a lot of the social experiences end up being some of the most compelling experiences that I've found. The ones that really stick with people are the ones that you're interacting with other people. There's only so far that the AI can take characters. And so just knowing that there's another person interacting with you, I think really fundamentally changes the interaction.

[00:14:54.304] Theresa Duringer: Absolutely, and I think that developers have been a little bit shy to jump into multiplayer so You know, the consumers out there and people going to conventions think that VR is this very single player, very isolated experience. But the problem is there aren't the incentives for the developers to create multiplayer experiences because already the market's relatively small compared to other game markets with platforms that have been around for longer. So you're already dealing with a small market and you're going to fragment that even more if you're saying, OK, only people who have two headsets can play this game or you have to find someone to play this game with. But I'm starting to see that tipping point where people are actually starting to invest in that multiplayer experience. And it's just incredible. I'm seeing things I've never seen digitally before. So one example is we've got a lot of orientation, tracking, head look in our game. If you and I are playing together, I can see what you're looking at, but I can also make eye contact with you in first person. That's a profound experience in a game to make eye contact with someone in VR. And what we found is it helps humor along quite a bit. So for example, if you look at something and laugh and I see where you're looking and I look at that thing and I start laughing, suddenly we're in this giggle fit between us and no one has said anything. There's no text that's been typed. There's no words. It's all nonverbal communication. It's body language. I'm seeing a lot of really interesting things there. Another thing is in a strategy game where you might be making a decision, if you can see with that orientation tracking, so the player cocking their head to the right, you know, and kind of looking at different things, it fosters patience because you can see them actively making a decision. Like if you were playing poker at a table with someone or as if you were playing a game with someone in real life. So having those sort of nonverbal communications foster relationships with people in VR is really exciting right now.

[00:16:38.208] Kent Bye: Wow. Awesome. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:16:47.475] Theresa Duringer: You know, I really keep thinking back to access. I saw some really interesting infographics recently where they were breaking down, you know, if the world was 100 people and who has access to the internet and computers, who has access to college, who has access to clean water. And I keep thinking about VR and the fact that VR might seem kind of expensive right now, but it's a really new technology. And relative to other things, it's actually not that expensive. So if you can give someone access to something that they might not normally be able to get, coming back to education, I think that's going to be so huge.

[00:17:20.862] Kent Bye: OK, great. Well, thank you so much, Arisa.

[00:17:22.824] Theresa Duringer: Thank you.

[00:17:23.895] Kent Bye: So that was Teresa Derringer. She's the CEO of Templegate Games and she was giving a talk at South by Southwest called Game Design for VR Pioneers. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, this is the first time that I've heard anybody really talking about using VR to explicitly opt out of a real life experience. In this case, Teresa is not a huge fan of flying and has visceral physiological reactions to flying and so instead of doing something like exposure therapy to be able to kind of get small doses of virtual experiences of flying in order to make it less overstimulating, she's actually just using VR to opt out of the experience of experiencing all those external stimuli. And so it seems to be working for her. And this is kind of the first time that I've heard anybody kind of using VR to explicitly get out of an experience that they didn't want to be in. Aside from, I guess, using VR for pain management for companies like DeepStream VR, So I guess there's a precedent for doing VR as a form of distraction therapy, but just kind of interesting to hear that as a use case. I don't personally think that this is going to be a widely spread use of VR, especially considering the wide range of different phobias people have. And just talking to Alex Faborg of Google, he kind of thinks that a lot of VR that's going to be being played is going to actually happen within the privacy of someone's home. but in some cases like riding on a train or plane where you're physically isolated for an extended amount of time then I think it's going to be a little bit more socially acceptable to use VR. So a number of different takeaways from the other points that Teresa was making about VR design. I think it's interesting to think back to the early days of the web and see the parallels between how people were doing these drastic measures in order to grab your attention and we kind of have this nostalgia of looking back at some of these websites from the early 90s on archive.org or geocities and kind of seeing the just really ugly web design that people were using but also on top of that just the link tags and very flashy ways that people were trying to grab your attention and I think Teresa is trying to make the point that in VR it's kind of like that right now, that in the future when people look back at some of these early techniques of trying to grab your attention and focus to where you should be looking at, then it may look as heavy-handed as the early days of the web look. So some of the different techniques that she says that she's been using in order to direct attention include things like Moving objects through a scene so that if you want to have someone looked at something then you can have an object fly in that direction. Or you can use some sort of particle effects at the periphery of the screen so that may catch somebody's attention so they want to look up. Having a non-player character in the scene that's also looking in the direction that you want to look can be a way to help guide your attention. The only problem is that you actually have to find the NPC in the first place and be paying attention to them when they're looking at something. But you can use the natural characteristics of when people are looking at something, you kind of want to see what they're actually looking at. So a couple of other points that Teresa was making is that VR is lacking a lot of the abstraction that is found in other games. So in other words, you're not able to do a lot of the shortcuts that game designers have been able to traditionally do within a video game. So for example, if you kind of think of the metaphor of a movie studio that shooting a scene in a city and they're only shooting an external shot you don't have to build the entire interior of those buildings. So in VR though you're able to kind of look all around and it actually exposes a lot of those things that you weren't able to see before and so it just makes you kind of be a little more comprehensive in the different objects and scenes that you're developing and you can't take as many shortcuts. Another point that Teresa was making is some of the mistakes that she made was that she's trying to design VR that you can't do anywhere else. And while that may be novel and interesting for you to experiment that way, sometimes a simple solution, for example, just using a button to be able to have some sort of user action is a lot more reliable than trying to code things like, you know, let's have the player nod because we can detect whether or not they're shaking their head. stuff like that could be just a lot of extra design work to have a mechanic that doesn't really work all that well. So I think right now in the early days of VR there's a lot of people that are experimenting and I think it's worthwhile to do that experimentation but kind of recognize the limitations of some things that in the end don't actually really make it more efficient or easier for people to interact with the VR experience. And finally some of the things that Teresa was talking about the multiplayer games that game has since been announced and released called Ascension VR which is kind of like a tabletop game where you're able to basically play a card game with other people and you can play it across multiple different platforms and so check out Ascension VR if you want to see some of the latest games that Teresa has been working on. So that's all that I have for today I'm gonna be at PAX West this weekend trying out all the different VR experiences that are there and Gonna be on a twitch livestream every evening starting at 5 p.m. And so that's at twitch.tv slash PAX 3 and that's part of the Intel Gaming and Intel Core i7 processor sponsored wrap-ups at the end of each day. They're currently sponsoring the Voices of VR podcast, both in August and September, so I'll be there trying out all the different events and then kind of reporting on them at the end of each day, along with a set of other panelists. So again, thanks for listening, and if you enjoy the podcast, then help spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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