Google Is Deeply Thinking About Social Norms for a VR World

You don't need much more than googly eyes and some hands.


Virtual reality is currently an isolating experience. You strap on a headset and disappear into another world while your friends in the room take Snapchats of you fumbling. Google knows this and announced this week that it aims to make VR a far more social experience.

Enter Project Tango-enabled phones, headsets, and remote controls later this year.

The company says it’s also thinking long and hard about the kinds of social norms that will affect the experience, including what avatars to use and how tall they are.

At Google I/O last month, the company announced its plans to enable multiplayer VR experiences using Project Tango, the Google division that wants to give phones and tablets better sensors to understand and map the world around it.

Rob Jagnow, software engineer on Google’s VR team, wrote on the company’s developers blog on Tuesday to explain what Google’s learned about shared VR experiences. Noting that simplicity is powerful, Jagnow says they don’t need much more than a pair of big googly eyes and some hands to convey a lot of emotion in a virtual space.

Two players work to solve a puzzle game in VR.


“Eyes give people a location to look to and speak towards, but they also increase face-to-face communication by making even basic avatars feel more human,” Jagnow writes. “When we combine this with hands and a spatially-located voice, it comes together to create a sense of shared presence.”

You can see how in a video the company shared, which shows two players trying to complete a VR game and when the task is completed the avatar does a little dance and gives the other user a high five.

Google is also concerned about the perceived height of users in a virtual space. Jagnow notes that people that know each other offline will be able to pick up on height differences, but the company is also toying with the idea of making height the same across all players, or even making each player feel as though they are the tallest in the space.

“Height is such a powerful social cue in the real world and we can tune these settings in VR to nudge people into having more friendly, prosocial interactions,” Jagnow writes.

Finally, Google says social experiences are far more immersive than other VR simulations. If it’s just one person in the virtual space they might be talking with another person in the physical room and that interaction lets them know they are straddled between two worlds. But when users are talking and interacting with another user in virtual space, they are more engaged.

Google says starting the VR experience with an ice breaker game helps to ease people into interacting with one another and fully suck them into the VR world.

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