The landscape of early virtual reality adoption and integration is exciting as tools and methods emerge and change on a constant basis. At the same time, a stable and consistent ecosystem has solidified which allows for adoption and use today. In the following post I will point out the current challenges of VR. For each challenge there are best practices to keep in mind that can mitigate shortcomings.
The price point for a complete VR setup has effectively been cut in half within the last year thanks to Facebook / Oculus’ effort to get a billion users into VR. Once the system is obtained, there still exists the need for a computer with sufficient graphics and processing power to run it. Oculus has worked hard to optimize on the software side to drive minimum spec computer requirements down to more affordable levels.
Despite these efforts, the purchase of a VR system and computer rig to run it is an investment. It really is a matter of perspective as the combined cost would still be less than an Apple laptop or other digital equipment you might consider for your practice.
An important element to keep in mind is the cost of VR art apps is extremely reasonable once you are setup. Oculus Medium and Quill sculpting / painting apps come free with VR system activation. Additionally, Google Blocks is also free and apps such as Tilt Brush often go on sale for around $10.
It’s important to keep in mind that VR equipment is very technical and may not be conducive to working with certain populations out of the box. There can be accommodations made and these may require some augmentation and adjustment to several features such as the headset and hand controllers. Click to hear a great talk from Oculus Connect 2017 on creating accessible content in VR for more people around the world.
In general, art therapy session time constraints can become a factor when working with virtual reality. It’s useful to conduct an initial session where you introduce the equipment to potential consumers and get them comfortable and adjusted for future VR art-making. In subsequent sessions the client should be able to get setup and finish as easy as setting up and cleaning up traditional art materials.
Some VR setups are considered roomscale which means the user is tracked throughout a large space and can walk around freely. Realistically, most people don’t have the space for this in their offices or studios. These space constraints may be problem for VR experiences that are created for the user to traverse a large distance by walking.
Fortunately, to make VR artwork you only need a minimum tracked space where you can take a step or two in each direction. Tilt Brush was originally created as a roomscale experience without the ability to manipulate the art. This led to comical scenes of people standing on chairs to paint large / tall pieces. All VR art apps (Tilt Brush included) now have the ability to move, scale, and rotate the artwork along with teleporting around the VR space if the piece gets too big.
It can be quite stressful when something goes wrong when using technology. The difficult aspect of VR in this regard is that their are a lot of moving parts. Because of this it is hard sometimes to track down the culprit of an error since it could be any number of factors. Oculus provides users with many straight forward, user friendly tools to diagnose and make adjustments to equipment.
During a session the most common correction that needs to be made is to the sensors if tracking is lost. There is an option to easily walk through resetting if needed. Usually a best bet is to restart the virtual reality software and sometimes reboot the computer. Most of the issues have to do with getting the user initially calibrated to fit properly with the headset and comfortable.
The cardinal rule of virtual reality is don’t make the user sick. Simulation / motion sickness occurs if the frame can’t catch up and render the virtual world every time the user moves their head. Oculus has built in special algorithms into their software to compensate for dropped frames. Sometimes latency can occur due to computer lag / overworking or sensors being occluded by the users body and not being able to track. All of these factors are good to keep in mind and can be addressed. For example, keeping the computer cool and making sure sensors are picking up user movement.
When getting around in VR it’s important that the user’s head remains the camera at all times. Any kind of effort to take control of the user’s point of view results in sim sickness. VR app developers have tried many different methods of getting the user around in VR space. The smoothest ways of doing this are a natural 1:1 walking action or a teleportation technique. Walking around naturally works great but doesn’t allow for larger distances. Once the user needs to travel further, the teleport option is a great complement. Most VR art apps use the combination of both.
Interaction with Client in VR
Once the client has the headset on and is in VR, it’s important for the therapist to have a way of seeing what is happening in the space. Having a second VR setup that the therapist can utilize to enter into virtual reality is ideal but may be prohibitive in regards to cost and space. I currently use a projector to see a large representation of what the client is experiencing in virtual space. Troubleshooting equipment and relaying technical information are easier when both therapist and client are in VR together. Making 3rd hand interventions and response art are also much more intuitive and effective when working this way.
Working with 2D digital art tools doesn’t require too much concern in regards to processing power and bandwidth given today’s computers and internet connection. It's also straight forward to save digital art files, backup, and email and it doesn't require much storage space. With VR there is much more data being transmitted due to the amount of processing it takes to render graphical virtual worlds and interactive elements. Since VR is stereoscopic, both eyes need to be rendered essentially doubling the amount of data. Cloud solutions may open up in the near future but for now be prepared for crashes and latency issues. When adding the complexity of multiple people coexisting and creating art in the same virtual space, much more online bandwidth is needed to make a seamless experience.
Privacy / Informed Consent
Privacy concerns are similar to considerations that need to be made when working with any digital format. Virtual reality art files that are produced by clients need to be stored in a safe and secure location. Creating a password protected folder that is only accessible to the therapist is a good practice. Clients may be interested in sharing their work online so that it can be viewed by others with a Google Cardboard or headset. Reviewing the Art Therapy Credentials Board section 2.2 is a good practice before recording, publishing, or displaying any client work.
Informed consent is also important before the client enters into VR. Oculus' health and safety warning is a good guideline for discussing the risks and possible side effects of VR use such as simulation sickness. There are many examples of wavers with all of the information available online.