Emotion vs Immersion

If you spend any amount of time thinking about, reading about, or developing something for VR, one of the buzzwords you hear frequently is immersion. We strive to create immersive experiences, where the viewer feels transported to a different place, but one where the paradigms are carefully managed, so that the person in the HMD feels transported – physically present in a virtual world.

Presence is the important term here. Simple things can break this sense of presence very easily – for example a camera that is too far above the ground. A missing physical body frequently can break this sense too, although including hands via either controllers like the vive or a system like the leap motion helps immensely with the sense of self that exists in the virtual reality. So developers right now spend a lot of time thinking about how to create presence, how to offer the viewer or player something that is as immersive as possible, in a variety of ways. Haptics, peripherals, devices that blow air in your face, spaces you can move around in and experience positional tracking naturally, seats that move your body in reaction to your VR experience, visual feedback in game, etc etc.

Immersion is important, but in some sense, it’s only important right now – it’s something we need to master, yes. But in 5 years, nobody will be talking about creating immersive content, it will just be one aspect of what you do. It might even be that you make conscious choices about breaking presence, in order to craft a different, hybrid reality experience. Right now, immersion is key, because when you’re new to VR, the thing that will blow your mind is actually feeling like you have been transported to some new world, some place that you are physically present. The WOW reaction that a VRgin has, is based mostly on how successfully we do this.

But that wow feeling only exists for a very short window of time. I’m past wow already, when it comes to immersion. It’s still cool, it’s still intriguing to be in a different place, but what gets me now is what is actually fun – what makes my experience great? Is it the strong visuals? (TheBlu) Interesting story? (Gone)Fun gameplay? (Goosebumps) Fear? (Dreadhalls) Sound? (Ossic)? The key going forward, I think, is going to be only partly dependent on these. Immersion will be a fact of life, but not what sells somebody on the experience you’re giving them. You won’t sell units based on immersion, unless you’re immersing someone in a completely unique place (e.g. SpaceVR) The really important thing we actually need to master is emotion. VR has a capability to create emotion in people that no medium to date has had the power to do. Yes – film can make you feel sad, or inspired, or fearful, but the inherent nature of film is that you are one step removed from that emotion. It’s temporary, it’s not part of our actual experience of the world. We remember that we saw something on a screen that evoked an emotion. When we go through an emotional journey, personally experience something like love, or fear, that is as different from the emotion you feel watching a film, as black and white television is to IMAX. VR takes you that far again into emotion. It doesn’t matter if it’s created content. It doesn’t even matter if it is realistic feeling content, our brains will experience it as though it is no different from reality. Logically, you may know that you are wearing a HMD, that it isn’t ‘real’. But viscerally and subconsciously, you will feel that emotion in the parts of your brain that are immune to reason, that existed far earlier in our evolutionary history.

Consider falling in love. What is the experience of falling in love like, from your brain’s perspective? Forget the stories we tell ourselves, consider instead what we feel when someone holds eye contact with us for the first time. What that rush of oxytocin feels like to our system. It’s not really dependent on the person we fall in love with – if it was, we’d all make far better choices when dating. It’s about the experience and feelings that the other person succeeds in creating, in us.

In VR, we can already give you eye contact, we can, within a few years, given reasonably well designed AI, successfully mimic all of the things that could make you feel love and affection for someone, only you would be falling in love with a virtual character. If that’s not something you personally find compelling, consider that the genre of books, year over year, that consistently outsells every other genre, is romance novels. There’s a reason for that – and it’s not because they’re original, or great literature. Just look at the Twilight franchise. The reason it was so successful is in part because the protagonist is an every-girl. Non-descript, Bella is what every ordinary girl dreams she could be, if only the right boy/sparkly vampire found her.  VR gives us the opportunity to play every role we ever wished for, try out being a superhero, or the girl the vampire loves, but only if we succeed in making the viewer feel that power, those emotions.

Even if you’re not interested in creating LoVR, it’s worth considering as we build narratives, and experiences, and games, that we should be creating an emotional script as we go – just as the film and animation industry create color scripts that dictate what every scene of a movie feels like, we should create emotion scripts, so at every moment in our experience, we know what emotion we are trying to create in the user, whether that is fear, love, joy, frustration, embarrassment, or anger. Even more complex emotions should not be out of reach for us, providing that is something we approach consciously. Design for the subconscious brain, make it feel, and there is no limit to what we can do with reality.


Suggestions and Guidelines for Safety in a Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality HMD during public demos.

Since someone in any kind of Head Mounted Device (HMD)  has limited to completely obscured vision, it is important to recognize appropriate behavior around them.

If you are not the person actively assisting with the demo

  • Please stay a minimum of 3 feet away from any person using an HMD, for both your own safety and theirs.
  • Do not touch the person in the HMD, with the exception of preventing imminent harm (e.g. they are about to fall). That includes not touching friends, even if you think they won’t mind, or that it will be funny. 
  • Recognize that leaving Virtual or Augmented reality can be disorienting for some, and allow people adequate time to adjust.
  • Do not take photographs of people in VR without their explicit permission.


If you are someone actively assisting with a demo, recognize that safety is the first concern.

  • Consider providing a seated experience when possible.
  • Before handing the user any equipment, explain what you are going to do, and what they are likely to experience.
  • Give users a safe place to put belongings temporarily while they are demoing.
  • If content is of a sexual or extremely graphically violent nature, warn the participant, and use your best judgment when the participant is under 18.
  • Follow current best recommended age for VR – currently, 13 and over. You may be liable for any injuries sustained to anyone under the age of 13.
  • If your content has in intense discomfort level (https://support.oculus.com/help/oculus/918058048293446/  ) warn the participant, and offer solutions for if they start to feel nauseous (e.g. “Close your eyes if you feel ill”)
  • Remind the participant that they can pause or stop the demo at any time if they are uncomfortable, either by verbally letting you know, closing their eyes, or removing the HMD
  • When starting the demo, verbally narrate your actions as you help the participant put on any equipment (e.g. “I’m going to put the headset on you now” and “Here are the headphones/controllers”)
  • Warn people that seizures or blackouts are possible for some (no great data on the risk, but without better knowledge, assume roughly the same as for TV – 1:4000), and make sure if they are feeling either prolonged dizziness or disorientation, that you encourage them not to drive.
  • Ensure sufficient clearance around the participant, and offer any appropriate safety warnings (e.g. cables, walls)
  • If using roomscale, verbally verify that the participant can see the Chaperone/Guardian barriers.
  • When possible, at crowded events, use tables or other physical barriers to separate the demo space from the general public area.
  • Use covers for HMD foam, and disinfect using alcohol wipes between each user. (https://vrcover.com/ are one provider of such covers)
  • If you are demoing using Google Cardboard (or similar devices made from porous material) please cover the areas that touch people’s face with duct tape, vinyl, or some other easily wipeable, non-porous material.
  • If necessary to touch the participant to move them, narrate your actions, and only touch the participant on the shoulders. (“I’m going to move you a step to your left”)
  • In loud places, using a microphone so you can talk to the user is useful – especially if you have sound as part of your experience (though may not be possible with mobile based VR)
  • Monitor the surroundings of the user for the entirety of the demo to ensure physical safety, and prevent damage of your equipment.
  • With desktop based non-wireless VR, be very cautious and careful about how cables are managed, especially if your demo has a lot of movement or turning involved. Better to stop the demo, than have someone trip over cables, and potentially injure themselves or your equipment.
  • Recognize that leaving Virtual or Augmented reality can be disorienting for some, and allow people as much time as they need to recover before leaving your demo area. Always ask at least one followup question as a way to gauge how they are – disoriented people may act somewhat like a drunk person, swaying, glazed eyes, confused speech.
  • A few people have mentioned never touching the HMD once it’s on the user’s head, and letting them remove it themselves, which I think is a great point – the only reason I didn’t mention it initially was that in my personal experience, sometimes people will wait for you to help them take the headset off, where others will immediately pull it off themselves. In this case, I’d suggest using your best judgement – if the demo is over, and they’re not removing it, once again, talk your way through it – “I’m going to take the headset off you now.”
  • If you are photographing or filming participants while they are trying out your demo, warn them explicitly before doing so, and get a written consent from them afterwards. This site has some great templates, and an explanation of why you need written consent. http://photography.lovetoknow.com/Photography_Release_Forms

If you are the person in the HMD

  • Respect the person giving you the demo, and their equipment.
  • Follow all guidelines they give you – they want you to have a safe and great experience.
  • Be aware that there is some risk for seizure and blackouts for a very small number of participants, although there is no great data on the frequency of this at the moment, you can assume that it is roughly the same level of incidence as for television.
  • Be aware of your surroundings prior to entering – especially how close physical objects like walls and furniture are to you.
  • Don’t use other people’s equipment if you are sick, especially if you are suffering from an upper respiratory infection, conjunctivitis, or any other highly contagious disease
  • If you start to feel nausea or other symptoms related to being in virtual reality, close your eyes, or remove the HMD.
  • At the end of a demo, remove equipment carefully, or wait for the person giving you the demo to do so.
  • If you feel excessively disoriented or dizzy after leaving VR, ask for help and do not drive until symptoms subside.
  • If you feel someone touched you inappropriately while you engaged in the experience, report this as soon as possible to the leadership team for the event.


Have more tips? Let me know! This is a living document, and I want to make sure I’m giving the best safety and awareness tips for all parties concerned.!