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'Less poking, more stroking' - Hunicke's nuanced ideas on VR interactivity

November 2, 2016 | By Kris Graft

November 2, 2016 | By Kris Graft
More: VR, Video, VRDC

For Robin Hunicke, CEO and designer for San Francisco-based game studio Funomena, paying attention to what your physical body is doing in VR is of the utmost importance, she explained at VRDC in San Francisco this morning.

In order to understand the idea of embodiment in VR, Hunicke (whose credits include thatgamecompany's Journey) made reference to physical play – playing in the dirt, playing with toys in a physical space.

“Play has become something we analyze and look at to understand the way we learn and grow,” she said.

Video games came along, and this new form of play then became about players projecting their bodies on screen in 2D on a screen, using buttons to manipulate bodies and images. Now, VR is bringing those video games and physical play together again.

But here in the early days of a new generation of VR, there’s a lot to learn about embodiment, and for that matter, disembodiment. For Hunicke, and Funomena’s in-development game Luna, the immediate focus is on how people use their hands in VR.

“Why are we obsessed with the hands?” Hunicke asked. “When you are in a space where you experience reality and you can’t see your hands, you feel weird. What they call it is the rubber hand illusion.”

This isn’t new to video games – designers have looked for ways to better connect players with games via all kinds of controllers – but in VR disembodiment and disconnect from one’s body is much more pronounced.

Hunicke explained a fundamental design challenge with the current crop of game controllers, as she illustrated the idea of the “power grip” vs. the “precision grip.”

The power grip is the grip you’d use to hold an axe or a gun, or to execute a one-inch-punch, Hunicke said. “The power grip has this effect of immediately stressing your body,” she explained. It automatically tenses the muscles all the way up your arm to your shoulder and back. “…It’s a very powerful tool," she said.

On the other hand, there’s the precision grip – the grip you’d use to hold a pencil or a paintbrush. “What do you engage when you do the precision grip? Just your hands,” she said. It’s a more relaxed pose for nuanced movements often associated with creating rather than destroying.

This “grip” issue presents a disembodiment problem for some games that use a power grip for a precision activity, putting the physical body and the activity at odds. As an example, Hunicke showed an image from the VR painting and sculpting game Tiltbrush, where the player-artist is painting in VR using a power grip, grasping the Vive controllers, basically, like guns.

“Thinking about the way the hand is embodied is a huge focus for me as a designer,” she said.

The studio’s upcoming game Luna works within the limitations of the current crop of VR controllers, encouraging players to prod, pull, stroke, and play using nuanced movements. Hunicke noted how gestures that seem simple – like reaching up – can be so satisfying in VR. Pointing up at the stars or popping a bubble can just feel good, she said.

She reminded developers that even though players are immersed in a virtual world, designers must think about players’ physical movement.

“When you look at VR as an effective medium, it’s not just about the things you see, but all the stuff going on outside of the headset,” she said.

And she encouraged designers to experiment with interactions that aren’t so forceful all the time. “I want you to stop poking and punching and everything to see if it’ll explode, but to ‘be’ and observe and listen,” Hunicke said.

“My motto is less poking, more stroking,” she added. “…Don’t forget your body when you’re designing – it’s a very important tool.”

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