Finding of the week #304

Flying in VR

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the experiences I made during my first flight using VR technology.

Despite being involved in Virtual Reality (VR) research for several years by now, I rarely came across VR applications that really kept me interested and motivated for a longer time. Often, I explored and tried out my own capabilities inside a particular virtual environment, but quickly stopped using it after having experienced most of the game mechanics. The reason for this is the lack of content that keeps me motivated beyond the initial curiosity.

This changed as a friend invited me to an X Plane 11 VR session. X Plane 11 presents a highly realistic flight simulation. It provides many realistic airplanes and allows users to practice flight procedures. Personally, I spent many hours playing flight simulations so I was immediately excited to give it a try in VR.

The most exciting moment was as I put on the head-mounted display and suddenly found myself inside a virtual Cessna 172. The realistic 3D cockpit gave me the feeling of actually being in a real airplane. All elements and instruments were at their correct position. Also, all control elements could be grabbed and manipulated using the game controllers. In this way, it was possible to use the yoke with one controller while adjusting the throttle with the second one.

This unprecendented flight experience was enhanced by the possibility to freely move my head and to change my perspective. Thus far, I was used to fixed views when playing flight simulations. This not only allowed me to better determine my position in respect to the runway, but also to have an overall improved overview over the instruments. It never was that easy to land a virtual airplane!

As a result, I was completely amazed by this VR flight experience. However, like most other simulations, things start to feel a bit unrealistic when haptic feedback is missing. While this is still ok for flicking switches or turning knobs, it becomes very difficult for using the yoke as well as the throttle. Of course, visual feedback helped me to keep the plane under control, but having no real control device in my hand reduced the overall immersive effect.

As a result of this, X Plane 11 VR might not necessarily allow for a direct training transfer in respect to actually flying an airplane. However, the realistic 3D cockpit models and accurate positions of relevant controls allow for a very effective and realistic training for procedures and check lists.

In the end, despite these limitations, it was the best flight simulation experience I ever made. Also, it was the first time, that I did not get quickly bored after having experienced most of the existing game mechanics. I am looking forward to my next virtual flight hours!

Finding of the week #303

View Dependent and Vehicle Dependent Navigation

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about two different approaches of implementing vehicle control in computer games: view dependent and vehicle dependent navigation.

Like in the real world, one can distinguish between two integral elements when it comes to navigation tasks inside a virtual environment. One has to be able to turn the gaze and to control the direction of motion.

Traditionally, computer games implement the mouse as a means to change the gaze and the keyboard as a means to control the actual locomotion. For instance, WASD commonly allows for a forward, backward and sidewards movement. Forward and backward movement depends on the gaze direction of a user.

Initially, this requires some training of hand-eye coordination and spatial orientation. Players are challenged to understand that they move towards the direction of their view when they keep the forward key pressed and away from it when the press the backward key. In this way, navigation is a combination of controlling the view direction and initiating a locomotion.

Driving virtual vehicles in Astroneer

However, this only applies to direct locomotion. In the case of navigation using vehicles, forward, backward and left/right are based on the vehicle itself. Hence, the direction of motion is independent of a player’s gaze. Similar to the real world, one can look to the side while moving into a different direction, e.g., driving forward with a car.

This technique allows for an intuitive control of vehicles. Players merely need to know in which direction the vehicle is facing to effectively navigate it through the virtual environment. However, in contrast to direct locomotion, vehicle control game mechanics also provide an alternative approach.

Here, the direction of forward and backward is dependent on the player’s view and not based on the structure of the vehicle. As a result, forward is all the time relative to a player’s perspective. While this not only is less intuitive, it also can result in a high degree of confusion when the player intends to circumnavigate an obstacle and suddenly is driving towards it

Therefore, I like to recommend to avoid view dependent controls for vehicles. These approaches cause a high degree of confusion, feel less natural and are less efficient. Before navigating, players first need to analyze which motion they want to initiate depending on their current perspective. Lastly, view dependent navigation causes a conflict with real world knowledge: a car always drives into the direction it faces independent of a player’s gaze.

Finding of the week #302

2018

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the year 2018.

Unbelievable! The year flew by and suddenly we are facing the end of 2018. Some might say that a lot has happened, others, like me, are surprised as they were so busy and did not even notice that we completed yet another orbit around the sun.

The word busy pretty much describes my year 2018. My primary goal was to finally finish this PhD thing for once and for all. While this was not in the cards for me this year, I at least managed to pave the way for it. Next year, I will hopefully break the chains of being a PhD student and move on to new challenges in academia.

In this year, I wrote 9 papers of which 5 got accepted. 4 of these papers are already published and the last one will be published May 2019. The other papers are under review and, if all goes well, will be published, soon. The overall workload of this year was even higher as some of the 8 papers had to be submitted twice due to some very bad reviewers.

Reviewers who decide to reject papers without even providing a comprehensive review are one of the major problems in current research. While some scientific quality assurance is needed, the peer review process itself requires a major overhaul to stop bad reviewers. Not only that a bad review might result in the rejection of good work, it also sends a message to the authors who then do not feel welcome by the community.

In respect to gaming, the year 2018 was relatively boring and also affected by my high stresslevel. In spring 2018, I decided to stop playing World of Warcraft after 13 years of playing it. This decision was not easy as many great memories are connected to the game. However, the game also ceased to be fun due to some bad design decisions from the developers. This also resulted in me loosing interest in playing the game after a stressful day at work. It just was not rewarding anymore.

Really fascinating and engaging releases were also rare this year. I think I had the most fun with Astroneer during the first weeks of 2018. For the rest of the year, I went back to older games that provided me with way more fun. For instance, I played RimWorld and Euro Truck Simulator 2 for a very long time and recently re-discovered Factorio.

For the next year, I do not have many concrete plans. Obviously, I finally like to finish the PhD. Based on this year’s stress, it probably will continue to be a tough time until it is finally over. In terms of gaming, I lost track of the upcoming releases and just need to see if something great suddenly pops up. Thus, there is a high potential to be surprised by 2019 as it still hides its events in dense fog.

Goodbye 2018, hello 2019.

Finding of the week #301

Use all the Game Mechanics

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the necessity to periodically require all available game mechanics during the gameplay to remind a player of the own capabilities and to make all game mechanics feel more relevant.

Computer games provide players with abilities inside of the virtual environments in form of game mechanics. Game mechanics encode a game’s underlying principles, hence define the game rules and a player’s capabilities. Often, computer games implement a core set of game mechanics that are frequently used during the gameplay.

For instance, being able to navigate and to interact with the virtual environment are essential tasks. However, the frequency of using advanced locomotion, such as jumping or climbing, highly depends on the overall gameplay of a computer games. As a result, players of a particular game might be less trained in using certain game mechanics when they are not a part of the regular gameplay. This can result in frustrating moments when a challenge suddenly requires a rarely used game mechanic. In such a case, players have to recall how exactly the game mechanic is defined and how they can properly use it. This might even end up in a trail and error scenario.

Things are even more difficult, when a game mechanic is introduced once at the beginning of a game and never required again until the late end-game. In such a case, players might already have forgotten that the required game mechanic exist. This leads to the player being stuck in the middle of the gameplay as they do not know how to overcome the current challenge.

For instance, in the hacking simulation Hacknet a player learns how to search for connected mobile devices in one particular mission. Since this mission, this approach is not needed again until the player reaches a specific mission in the later stages of the game. Even though the game provides a hint that might remind the player of this function, the hint does not inform the player how exactly they can scan for and unlock mobile devices. As a result, the player might get stuck and needs to search for information given at the start of the game or even use the internet to find a solution.

Therefore, it is important to either periodically require all game mechanics to avoid that a player forgets about it or to provide enough hints so that the player can proceed without being required to do tedious research. Also, the former approach would make rarely used game mechanics feel more relevant as they start to play a more integral role in the overall gameplay.

Finding of the week #300

Number 300

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the crazy fact that this is the 300th article of my Finding of the Week series. This is unbelievable.

As I started to write this article, I was really excited as I entered the title into the interface. This is the 300th article of my series! I started this series just out of curiosity and the idea to simply write a short text about a gaming related topic on a weekly basis. I never expected to do this for such a long time!

Of course, as time progressed, I also addressed other topics in my small science blog. I wrote about some inspirations I got while travelling, I addressed global problems like climate change and I discussed several spaceflight-related milestones. Despite taking these detours, I all the time returned to the topic of gaming.

In particular, I presented concepts, ideas, and results of using computer games for serious purposes such as knowledge learning, training, and therapy. From time to time, my detours even resulted in new ideas for computer games that could raise the general awareness for important topics or help people to understand certain facts. Computer games not only require a repetitive application of specific knowledge, but also demonstrate the underlying principles in an audiovisual way. These two aspects allow for a knowledge learning and the development of an in-depth knowledge about a particular topic.

My little science blog and especially the Finding of the Week series help me to find my way through the darkness on the road to PhD. It added a certain constant to my life and often reminded me why I am actually doing all the research: I want to show that playing computer games can result in great things such as a strong self-improvement. However, although writing those articles is helpful, I also notice more and more that I desire a change.

It is not that I am no longer content with my series, it is more about the fact that I am producing this series since I started with my PhD. In this way, this series also tells me that 300 articles were written and I still do not have finished my PhD… This series is deeply connected with my Road to PhD – topic-wise and time-wise – and I really desire to change both things: finish the PhD and maybe start to write about a different topic.

As a result, I hope that the next few articles will continue to inspire me to carry on to finally finish this big PhD project before I have to write the 400th anniversary article.

Thank you to all me readers and all the other great people out there that help me on this journey!

Finding of the week #299

The Fascination of Computer Games

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about two main factors that make the gameplay of a computer game highly motivating.

Computer games are vivid and engaging environments. Here, I like to focus on two central factors making the gameplay highly motivating: an epic story or the chance to be creative.

Story-based computer games offer a broad variety of different narrative types. It can be a simple career mode allowing a player to work their way up to the highest tiers and ranks of the simulated content, e.g., racing games. Computer games can also tell a very atmospheric story evoking deep emotions in a player. For instance, Live is Strange challenges players with a very emotional gameplay and the option to rewind time to change decisions made thus changing the lives of others. Being in charge of the lives is also targeted by the Mass Effect games. The Mass Effect trilogy tells an epic story: the player is in charge of the fate of an entire galaxy being inhabited by different species.

By providing such an epic story, computer games challenge players with goals being bigger than theirselves. This can become a very motivating element as it makes a player’s actions highly relevant and provides rewards rarely available in the real world. Suddenly, by playing a game, players can change the lives of a larger group of people. These virtual people then thank the player for their effort and actions. As a result, a player receives emotional rewards rarely available in today’s stressed and harsh environment.

Thus, by providing an epic story, players experience a high motivation as they not only enjoy an exciting narrative but also receive emotional rewards. They contribute to big and meaningful events changing the lives of many others.

The other type of highly motivating computer games target a very creative gameplay. Here, players have nearly complete freedom inside the virtual environment and can realize large projects requiring a focus on many details to achieve perfection. Typical games that provide such a gameplay are Minecraft and Factorio.

Minecraft allows players to completely change vast landscapes by turning them into towns, temples, large castles or other creative environments. Factorio gives players complete freedom over the design of large factories requiring a high amount of planning and micro-management.

By allowing for a focus on many details while providing nearly complete freedom, a computer game can inspire players to target large-scale builds. Finishing these builds is ambitious but also highly motivating as players constantly see how much progress they made.

In the end, by providing an epic story or complete freedom, computer games can achieve a highly motivating gameplay.

Finding of the week #298

Experience-based Retention Mechanisms

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the frequent implementation of multiple experience point systems in a game. The systems individually reward the utilization of different game elements, thus aiming at increasing a player’s motivation.

Since several years, one can observe a game design trend of connecting an experience point system with a game’s core game machanics. A game mechanic defines a player’s actions inside of the virtual environment or creates the game’s challenges a player has to overcome. For instance, Minecraft allows a player to swing a sword and challenges them with dangerous enemies that spawn during the night and attack the player. This interaction between these two game mechanics creates one aspect of Minecrafts overall gameplay.

While Minecraft only implements one experience point system allowing for the performance of special actions, e.g., enchanting and repairing of items, other games also provide a weapon-based or action-based experience system. Here, players can improve the performance of certain game elements by frequently utilizing them during the gameplay.

Similar to practicing the performance of an action in the real world, this game mechanic suggests the development of a better proficiency in the performance. This experience system is enhanced by the provision of unlockable perks making the actions and weapons stronger.

As this game mechanic provides a clear goal as well as a constant feedback, it often is perceived as very motivating and can even induce the experience of flow. However, when it is applied to every individual action or weapon, it can also result in a desire to completely upgrade all game elements. As a result, players probably play the game for an extended amount of time beyond the end of the core narrative.

From a game design perspective, this is a very efficient approach. It requires only a small amount of development work, is easy to extent and effectively increases a player’s motivation. From a player’s perspective, it mostly aims at vested players. Gamers with a limited amount of time who like to play a game for short periods only might feel constrained as they cannot keep up with the performance of others.

Personally, I currently belong to the latter category. I enjoy to play complex and difficult games. However, I like to have access to the full potential of the game right from the beginning without being required to put in a lot of time to get access to all game elements. To me, the success in a game should be more based on the skill of a player and not on the time a player invests in the game.

In conclusion, nested experience systems are an effective way to increase a player’s motivation. However, they also reduce the overall enjoyment of a game when it is only played for short sessions.

Finding of the week #297

Between Flow and Presence

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about my observations in respect to the influence of flow and presence on the overall experience of a computer game.

Flow occurs when a person is completely immersed in the performance of an activity. This results in the experience of joy and can be described as „being in the zone“. Flow requires an activity that matches the person’s skill level without being too difficult or too easy. When in a state of flow, one likes to remain in the activity.

Presence describes the subjective illusion of being in a real place. Presence positively scales with the degree of sensory immersion in the virtual environment. This mostly is achieved by using visually immersive devices like head-mounted displays. Presence has an effect on the overall experience of the virtual environment and the activities performed.

While the degree of presence also indicates how much a user feels to be a part of the virtual environment, i.e., experience the feeling that own actions matter, flow indicates to fully absorb a users attention and awareness. I recently observed this phenomenon as I played Factorio, again.

Factorio

Factorio is a desktop computer game being played from a bird’s perspective. While the user can interact with the virtual environment using their avatar, presence potentially is low in contrast to fully immersive virtual reality applications. This is a result of a user’s perspective and the fact that Factorio provides no full visual immersion. Despite the low presence, Factorio induces a high degree of flow and fun when being played. It fully absorbs my attention resulting in the outcome of completely forgetting about the passage of time and blending out other changes in the real world.

Thus, although presence is highly important for a very believable experience of a virtual environment, a high flow-inducing characteristic is more important for computer games to be entertaining and fun. However, once having achieved a highly flow-inducing gameplay, increasing presence could further enhance the overall experience.

Finding of the week #296

Improving the experience of doctoral appointments

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how some boring medical treatments could be enhanced using VR technology.

Yesterday, I had an appointment with my dentist for a yearly check-up. I also used this appointment for a prophylaxis session. During this session, my human-computer interaction brain started to think about the procedure. I was just lying around and at some point due to some sandblasting I even had to wear some goggles to protect my eyes. In addition, there was no chance for a communication for obvious reasons. Why do we not provide some possibilities to make this entire procedure less boring?

In the end, I came up with two different ideas that could greatly enhance such a session: 1) provide a method to interact with the dentist and 2) use mobile VR to provide an immersive distraction. The first idea would be easy to realize. The medical office already has a good digital infrastructure allowing for the display of (x-ray) images and other information inside of the treatment rooms. The interaction with this system is controlled via mobile devices like tablets. This also provides the possibility of drawing directly into images to highlight specific information. With this infrastructure in place, it should be easy to combine this with a text-to-speech feature. By providing patients with mobile devices, they would be able to communicate with the dentist and could have a conversation.

The mobile VR idea resulted from the fact that I had to wear these protective goggles. By finding a way to make mobile VR HMDs easier to clean, patients could immerse themselves into virtual worlds during a prophylaxis session. This, in addition, would also allow for a possible reduction of anxiety when other treatments need to be carried out. By reducing the sensory information from the real world and replacing them with computer generated ones, a patient’s awareness for being inside of a treatment room would be highly reduced. This aligns with other approaches that provide children in hospitals with mobile VR devices to reduce their anxiety about lengthy therapies.

In the end, by providing ways to overcome limitations, e.g., not being able to speak during a treatment, or to distract from the surrounding environment, e.g., by using immersive VR devices, the experience of doctoral appointments could be improved. This in return would also increase a patient’s motivation to attend check-ups.

Finding of the week #295

When do I feel present?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about my personal requirements to experience presence inside of a virtual environment.

Recently, I helped two colleagues preparing their experiment by volunteering as a participant. The central goal of their study is to measure the subjective experience of presence. Presence is the subjective illusion of being inside a virtual environment despite physically being located in a completely different environment. The illusion is increased when a user is visually immersed in the virtual environment, e.g., by wearing a head-mounted display.

This experiment made me think about my personal experiences with presence. Which gameplay and design elements are needed to feel present inside a virtual environment? Personally, I feel the highest degree of presence when either the virtual world is manipulable and reacts to my actions as well as when the virtual environment is designed in a natural way, features a believable scenery and is freely explorable.

A manipulable world requires virtual objects or agents I can interact with and that show a reaction based on my actions. The effectiveness of these interactions for inducing presence is not depended on their complexity or believability. It is more about the mere possibility to actively change things inside of the virtual world with my actions. For instance, the option to grab and throw a virtual object already is enough to let me experience presence. However, simply indicating my existence with 3D assets of the game controllers or even a realistic avatar rarely induces presence. Thus, to feel presence, it is important to me that my actions matter, e.g., by changing the position of an object, and not that I am visually represented inside of the virtual world.

A freely explorable and believable scenery requires a lot of modelling and level editing. Like in the real world, I enjoy seeing new places and exploring them by changing my perspective. For a virtual environment, this requires a detailed virtual world and the possibility to freely navigate through the environment. Environments that mainly consist of nothing more than a nearly empty virtual world featuring only a few assets make it very hard for me to experience presence. Here, I immediately notice that it is nothing else than a simulation thus breaking the illusion of actually being inside of the virtual world. Thus, to feel presence, it is important that the virtual world hides the fact that it is a simulation by presenting many details making it lively and believable.

In the end, as complex virtual environments are diffcult to design, each virtual world should contain at least one interaction possibility. This interaction should enable a user to perform an action inside of the virtual environment that causes a change of it. As a result, they potentially experience presence when immersing themselves inside such a virtual environment.