VR Games are Less Immersive than Pancake Games

When people first try VR, they often experience The Blu. It is a spectacular demonstration of the presence and immersion possible in VR. In the most popular sequence in the experience, you find yourself on the deck of a sunken ship. As you marvel at the beauty of this underwater environment you have been transported into, a gigantic whale comes into view, mere meters away from you. It pauses to eye you (curiously? balefully?), before swimming away and sending a rush of water past you.

Wow! The fidelity of the environment in its visuals and audio stun the senses at first. Then, you realize you can walk about this deck as if you were there, even crouching down to inspect objects and fish, or reaching out your hand to brush the fauna of this seascape. Now, you come face to face with a creature whose scale you have only been privy to before maybe once, in a natural history museum. But this whale is living; you can lock eyes with it, and the encounter is as ephemeral as a real encounter with a wild creature – before you know it, it is gone.

This is VR in its best form: you are truly transported to a realm that is better than real life. Even if you took the time to become certified for scuba diving and started exploring sea wrecks and swimming with sea life, it wouldn’t be the same. VR allows you to strip away the scuba mask and the hours of training, the cost of taking a boat out to a site, and the danger of entering an alien world. It condenses a transcendent experience into a package that is available to ANYONE, even the young and the handicapped. It is hyperreal: better than reality.

But most of what you can experience in VR does not match this level of hyperreality. It struggles to justify the friction of the medium – the setup time, the cost, the discomfort of strapping a device to your face. Even enthusiasts soon realize that the available virtual worlds of VR don’t offer a better experience, holistically, than sitting on the couch watching Netflix or playing a 3rd person action game on the computer. Why is this? There is a fundamental calculation being performed unconsciously:

Relative Value = Unique Benefits – Unique Downsides

VR has a lot of unique benefits as compared to traditional pancake gaming, as well as some unique downsides. One large benefit is the novelty factor. But this benefit decreases with exposure, and in the end this calculation of relative value results in a negative number for most people. The data backs this up. 40% of people only use their VR device once a week, 34% of people use it less frequently than that. [1] A lot of people mostly break their device out to show to someone else.

Some of the common unique benefits of VR:

  1. Presence – VR has a phenomenal ability to make your brain believe you are truly in a different space.
  2. Massive input space — 6 DOF VR’s motion controllers afford many degrees of freedom over traditional computer inputs. Not only are there the eponymous 6 degrees of freedom (position and rotation), but there is linear and angular velocity, two or more analog inputs (joystick, trigger, etc), and several digital inputs (face buttons).
  3. Physical Freedom – you can transcend the limitations of your mortal form, flying across the world like a superhero or diving deep into the depths of an abyss.
  4. No Consequences – this is a benefit shared, nominally, by traditional games. In Grand Theft Auto you can shoot, steal, and drive like a demon without consequences – you won’t feel bad for killing real humans, and you won’t go to jail for the rest of your life. In VR, you can explore the same kind of consequence-free space, but mapped much closer to reality. You aren’t pressing a button to smash open your opponent’s skull in the gladiatorial arena; you are actually doing it!

Some typical downsides of VR:

  1. Time, Space, and Monetary Cost – not only are the headsets and computers expensive, but you often need to dedicate space in your house to them, and spend time setting it up and maintaining it.
  2. Hassle – by this, I mean the stress imposed by the ensemble of equipment. In order to enjoy the benefits of VR, you must contend with adjusting the headset to fit your head, finding a proper IPD setting, adjusting the headphones or earbuds, picking up the controllers after putting on the headset, adjusting straps on the controllers, minding the headset cable during play, avoiding lens fog, etc. Then sometimes the computer will be acting up, requiring some troubleshooting and application restarting.
  3. Discomfort – even with a perfectly situated headset, it presses against your face and scalp and heats up. Most devices also introduce some ocular discomfort over time, whether due to pupil swim, IPD mismatch, or other subtle optical problems.
  4. The Experience Mapping Problem.

The Experience Mapping Problem

The human brain is fantastic at recognizing patterns and drawing connections. As young children, we gain an intuitive understanding of physics by observing how objects react to our inputs – we unconsciously construct an elaborate mental model of reality, which allows us to accurately predict the outcome of our actions. This is what lets you grab a mug and set it down elsewhere without spilling its contents, or push through a door and enter the room beyond. Sometimes, this model is incorrect: you misjudge the weight of the mug, or the door is locked. When this happens, your body often continues to execute a planned sequence, causing you to drop the mug or run into the door. Trained on hundreds of thousands of hours of experience, our mental model maps certain stimuli to certain responses – and it takes a lot to break that linkage and reform your model to account for a new reality:


VR, fundamentally, runs smack into this mapping problem. Traditional pancake games exist as a separate reality – one that exists on a screen, and which you interact with by pressing buttons. You construct a new mental model when playing pancake games, one that maps the stimuli on-screen to button-pressing responses. Virtual reality, on the other hand, intends to present a reality that mirrors real life. You see it and hear it the same way you see the real world, you can move around with your actual body and you can use your hands to interact with the world – just like real life!
So your brain, naturally, attempts to use the same mental model to react to stimuli in VR. But this rarely serves you well. Current digital worlds function with radically different rules. And this radical mismatch between your mental model’s expected outcome and the observed outcome breaks immersion.

This is the basis behind my claim that VR is actually less immersive than traditional interactive simulations. This runs contrary to what you would expect; what could be more immersive than actually being physically present in another world? But what is immersion? Immersion is the transportation of the spirit – when your subjective experience is completely subsumed by a piece of media. You can be sitting on your couch with a controller, but be completely immersed in the fantasy action game in front of you. Your entire consciousness is in the world described by the image on-screen. Yes, your bodily presence never leaves the couch, but your mind and soul are elsewhere. This can happen even with a movie or book. A book is not naturally immersive, but eons of narrative craft can be leveraged by a good author in order to transport you to another time and place.

The antithesis to immersion is any reminder of your bodily presence in the real world. If you must consciously acknowledge the duality of your existence (the body in one place, the mind in the other), your mind is drawn back to the mortal coil. A distraction causes you to look up from your book, someone walks in front of the TV, or a phone goes off in a theater.

On one hand, VR enables a powerful sort of pseudo-presence. Your eyes and ears are physically present in this other reality, as are your hands (sort of). On the other hand, this physical presence is hampered by invasions of external elements — the cables, the screen-door effect, limited field-of-view, inner-ear and proprioceptive discrepancies — which remind you that you are strapped into a headset.

In addition, many VR experiences are chock full of metaphorical phones-in-theaters. The unconscious attempt to apply your mental model of the real world to this virtual world results in constant discrepancies between expected and observed results, which must be resolved with conscious effort. This further drags your mind away from the constructed reality and back into real life.

What can we do? How do we create a virtual reality that delivers on the promise in The Blu?

How do we tip the calculation of relative value from red to black?

Simply posing the question suggests an answer: we leverage the unique benefits and minimize the unique downsides. Fortunately, lots of people are already working to this end. The monetary cost of VR is decreasing, along with the setup and hassle. Technological improvements in display technologies and audio simulations boost presence, and new apps give players new freedoms and consequence-free fantasy fulfillments.

People are working on these problems because they are obvious. But the Experience Mapping Problem is not obvious. Its results are obvious – a lack of immersion. But this is frequently diagnosed as a fidelity problem, to be solved by higher resolution displays, more realistic graphics, advanced physics simulations, and more “natural” controllers. Unfortunately, these things may actually worsen the Mapping Problem with current-gen VR.

[Asgard’s Wrath]

[Job Simulator]

Which is more immersive? Asgard’s Wrath is more realistic, but you are less likely to lose yourself in the simulation.

[Hand tracking]

[Oculus Touch]

Which is more immersive? Finger tracking is more realistic, but when you try to grab a virtual object, the outcome is VERY different from the expectation based on a lifetime of using your hands.

One solution is to create a set of stimuli that are so different from reality that the player does not make the mistake of assuming their IRL mental model will apply in this space. But this means we must abandon the benefits of VR related to player fantasy. Physical freedom and consequence-free spaces are less meaningful if they are completely unrelated to reality anyways. Nonetheless, some experiences like Tilt Brush and Oculus Medium leverage the input freedom and physical movement freedom to create engaging abstract experiences. But the promise of a hyperreal VR world that is “like real life but better” demands that we try harder to resolve the Mapping Problem.

There are two paths to resolution – the first (and more common approach) is to expedite the player’s development of a new mental model. The second path is to develop virtual realities that are designed to gracefully accept players’ actions and minimize mismatches between expected and observed outcome.

We need elements of both solutions in order to achieve VR’s potential — but modern games need more of the second path. Forcing the player to develop a complicated new mental model to interact with virtual reality means sacrificing a significant amount of VR’s hyperreality, and thereby decreasing its relative value. But we need to maximize the relative value of VR — it’s now or never. If VR doesn’t enter the mainstream now, it will likely never flourish.

The most popular apps and games can teach us how to minimize the mapping problem; games like SUPERHOT, Job Simulator, Robo Recall, and Thrill of the Fight.

Let’s make VR the immersive hyperreality we were promised by science fiction:


(video source)


[1] “77% of Virtual Reality Users Want More Social Engagement”