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Four Tips for developing a location-based VR experience

When developing VR content we always need to keep in mind where the experience will meet the audience, which is of course a question of distribution. As you may already know, there are two main ways to distribute your VR content - you either distribute online, or sell tickets to an experience presented in a physical location.

For developers, putting stuff online is much more natural. The audience is similar to us by owning their own headset and being familiar with how to operate it. But when we want to develop location-based content we are talking about audiences who may be using VR for the first time (usually if asked they’ll say they used VR, but when you dig a little deeper you will find out they saw 360 videos in some cardboard - PEOPLE, 360 IS NOT VR!!). Add to this the all the logistics: a limited number of headsets, limited opening hours, and an operator that needs to help users get in and out of the experience, and you can see that location-based VR requires you to tackle a totally different set of challenges than developing for home use. And the worst part is you can’t download other location based apps to learn from.

But don't worry! We are here to help you get started by sharing with you some tips we learned. Most are easy to implement in your projects and are super helpful for any location-based experience.

We discovered these tips while developing our first location-based experience - AHARONMAN. To read more about it click here.

and now...without any more delay… THE TIPS!!!

1. Start with a reference for testing vision.

Are you familiar with the moment when you hand a headset to someone who never tried VR before and he puts it loosely on his head, so you help him to adjust the straps and ask him if he sees alright? Usually, he will answer “I don’t know”. Not very helpful but very understandable when you think of it - if someone is not familiar with VR he doesn't know how clear they should see. Especially when the first thing they get to see is a black loading screen or an empty room. In some cases this could lead to someone playing for a while before realizing they were seeing blurry all along. Even if it is possible to restart the experience it still feels kinda bad.

We found a simple trick to make sure the user is seeing fine - an eye chart, as used for vision testing. The kind where you have a line of letters followed by a smaller line of letters and so on.

When the eyes chart image was the first thing people saw as the put on the headset there was no need to ask them if they see well. They immediately understood its functionality and used it as a reference to tell if there is a problem.

If you want to implement in your project only one tip from the list, implement this one. It is crazy easy to produce and in some cases it can be experience changing.

2. No user menu

When developing content for a location-based VR you should design the menu only for the operator and not the audience.

First of all, you want to give the user the experience of jumping into action, not of pressing a  button to jump into action. (by the way, pressing a button is not an obvious thing for first time VR users)

Also, if you give them a start button it implies a pause button. When playing at home it is wonderful to pause sometime and take a break but in location-based VR there is a line of people waiting to go in, and you want the user to understand this an experience you play in one session.

 We used a Lobby scene, in which the user had time to adjust, with the eye chart, a hearing test, get your controllers and headphones and then the when operator sees everything is fine they would press the start button.

When there are people standing in line there is a pressure to rush players, sometimes at the expense of starting the experience when users can't yet see, hear, or interact. A lobby environment is the most efficient way to go over the checklist (visuals, sound, hand controllers).

3. The experience is self explanatory.

It sounds a bit clunky but let us elaborate - when the operator presses the start button you want them to move on to help the next user, not assist those already in the experience.

For this to happen you want to design the experience thoughtfully and let a character within the virtual world explain every detail the user needs to know - from the boundaries of the play area to the way you should use your controllers to interact with the world. You should design the simplest interactions and explain them with a slow and steady learning curve. Before learning to shoot you need to know you can move your hands. There is nothing more frustrating than not understanding a component in a VR experience, and nothing should be taken for granted.

Maybe you think to yourself “isn't it a little boring?” well… as the developers, it is our job to make the learning interesting and surprising. In other words - use storytelling GODDAMMIT. the hero of a story knows very little at the beginning and learning the world around him and gaining new experiences is part of their journey (more on storytelling in VR in future posts)

An example of this principle - at the beginning of AHARON MAN VR you wake up in a flying airplane and discover you play as Aharon and your memory is lost. You are told you are on your way to a secret mission and you're briefed with your origin story, then you get to see yourself in a mirror to discover you are wearing the AHARONMAN suit.

To let the users fully enjoy the body avatars we pop out a disco ball and ask them to dance. The dance is recorded, and users are delighted to see at the end of the experience the recording of their dance moves. So in our case, the "VR tutorial" was actually one of the most original and fun parts of it, even for experienced VR players.

4. Use fixed Timelines

So, now your first-timer user knows everything they need to know to enjoy your experience, this is the time to let them face a hard challenge and kill them If they aren't good enough. Next please.

Just kidding, yeah? We intend to emphasize the difference between a game and experience. It is a mistake to categorize by mechanics. Better to instead separate by the way the user is advancing. In order to advance in a game, the user will need to use their skill to overcome challenges, and if they aren't skilled enough they'll be stuck. But in a VR EXPERIENCE, we believe you should use a fixed timeline to advance the events and the action.

It is good to give the user a game mechanic - like shooting bad guys or solving puzzles, but you don't want their success to dictate if they get to the end with the feeling of meaningful experience. A fixed timeline helps you making sure every user gets to the finish line on time, avoid delays, and get the most out of your content.

It is better to reward those who were good at overcoming challenges than to punish those who didn't. In AHARON MAN VR, for example, every user won the game and finished the experience on a high note, but we also had a scoring system to challenge more experienced users. At the end of the project lifecycle, the user with the most points won a Lenovo Legion computer.

While working on your timeline you will find it is very similar to the job of a video editor. You need to find the right timing for the events to occur - too soon and the user is occupied with something else and they won't notice them, too late and they will get bored and out of flow. It is a hard job and it requires a lot a play-testing with all kind of users but it is totally worth it. A well-paced-storytelling-VR-experience has some kind of captivating magic to it, the feeling of being the hero of a movie.

Timelines in unity are usually used for cutscenes. We use them to change script variable and tie them with dialogue, music, and static events. In this example, an enemy spawner difficulty is controlled by the timeline.

This is the end of this post. We hope you found it useful. And if you are a VR developer we advise you to consider making your next project a location-based experience. There are many challenges but it is a chance to get to new kinds of audiences, who are not tech-oriented and not likely to own a VR headset, and to get them addicted to the gripping power of a well made VR experience :)

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