I like to break problems down to first principles whenever possible. If you can dig deep enough into “why” something works (or fails), and work through enough experiences, patterns start to emerge and conceptual models come into focus. The models are important so you can frame your thinking and future experimentation. It also allows you to ask, “what if…?” type questions in a coherent fashion.

So the Three As are at the heart of any immersive experience, but particularly VR. They are:

  • Agency – what can I do, how do I do it, and why should I care?
  • Attention – what is important, how do I discern it, and why should I care?
  • Affiliation – who am I, what are my connections, and why am I here?

In order to create an experience that is compelling, you need to fully grasp the 3 As before you write a single line of code.

Agency – this is one of the advantages of VR, and also the curse. The user gets a vote, and can look wherever they want. But increasingly, users are expecting even more agency, whether through controllers or gesture or even triggers based on gaze or tracking direction. It is key to manage expectations of the user, and make clear immediately what the user can and can’t do. Typically you have less than 15 seconds to hook the user, so if you either bore them or piss them off, you’ve lost them. Giving a user the illusion of agency (buttons in the environment, things to grab) but not letting them interact with them typically is a no-no. If they can’t interact with it, then don’t make it *look* like they can interact with it.

Attention – this gets a lot of attention from developers (pun intended), and those that are trying to relocate linear narrative in VR rely in various tricks to direct attention. To me this is wrong-headed – why go to the trouble of creating an immersive VR world and then lead the user around by the nose (or by the sound effect, or light burst or, etc). Yes, you do need to try and direct attention from time to time, but it is not a crutch. The user should feel like their attention is guided organically rather than chasing Pavlovian responses.

Affiliation – probably the most important but least attended to factor. The user needs to know who they are and their role in the environment. Because VR is about embodiment, identity needs to be clear to the user. If they are a fly on the wall, then let them know. If they are an active participant, let them know. If they have a particular relationship with other characters, let them know. An embodied user needs to understand who and why they are.