Firefly Island is an exploration of how social VR can be an intimate medium. It is a social VR world that features playful, interdependent activities like a hide and seek game, with the aim of bringing two people together and helping them connect in VR. The world takes advantage of the unique possibilities in social VR to create an enjoyable, magical experience for users, while providing insights on how to create better intimate experiences in social VR.
- World design
Imagine a stranger coming up to you and patting you softly on your head. It would be bizarre if this happened to you in the real world. However, if you were hanging out in a cute animal avatar on VRChat, a headpat wouldn’t be all that strange. In fact, headpats are quite the norm in VRChat. Today, platforms such as VRChat and Rec Room are helping people to meet others and engage in new kinds of shared experiences online.
In my master’s thesis, I set out to explore how VR can transform our experiences of intimacy and close connection over the internet. In a connected world, social VR gives us the ability to experience meaningful connection with others online in new ways. For one, the ability to embody an avatar in VR gives us a new sort of grasp on the digital world–it lets you physically interact with another person over the internet. However, the potential of social VR does not stop there.
Social superpowers in VR
Interactions in social VR do not need to follow the existing social conventions of the real world, as they can make use of the unique possibilities in a virtual reality that is not bound to the rules of the physical world.
These unique interaction possibilities, or affordances of social VR can almost feel like superpowers, as McVeigh-Schultz and Isbister rightly point out. One of the main goals of Firefly Island was to make use of unique social VR affordances to facilitate intimacy in new ways, while uncovering new affordances through the design process and evaluation of the world.
While intimacy can be a complex concept, it was useful to focus on the different themes that constitute intimacy, such as reciprocity, self-disclosure, and trust. In addition, the focus was on a broad conceptualisation of interpersonal intimacy, which included closeness between family, friends, or even strangers.
A magical world of fireflies
Different ideas were explored during the design stage of the world, but the central theme that brought the world together was that of fireflies. The idea was to create a living, breathing environment that users could interact with. Fireflies had the potential to evoke nostalgia and childhood memories, and spark feelings of joy and wonder within people visiting the island.
With the theme established, a visual direction was derived for the world. The main elements included a calm and relaxing night-time atmosphere, the use of visually warm lights that contrasted with the cooler environment, and elements that imparted at an ethereal and magical feeling to the world.
Creating the activities
Firefly Island features multiple activities and interactive elements for users to explore and discover. Activities were designed keeping in mind the values of simplicity and replayability, aiming for an enjoyable experience that users could keep coming back to. Another design value that was forefronted was that of expressiveness, which ensured that users were able to adapt the activity in their own way and derive their own enjoyment out of it.
While designing the activities on Firefly Island, I took inspiration from various sources including the natural and digital world. This resulted in some truly unique activities.
Play hide and seek by catching fireflies
The classic game, but with a twist. Catching fireflies makes the hider go invisible for a short time, while the seeker has to catch fireflies to activate an ability that reveals the hider.
Create a memory jar together
Taking advantage of the co-creation affordance in VR, this activity allows users to create a personalised firefly jar, and take home the fireflies that they caught in the world.
Play with magic witch hats
These hats might look normal at first glance, but they hide a secret. They encourage physical proximity and interactions between users with their magic.
Go fishing, but catch emoji instead
What’s an island without a fishing game? Here, players can catch thousands of different emoji in a relaxing fishing game which was designed to facilitate intimacy through self-disclosure and conversation.
Even more interactive stuff!
With flowers that users can pick and put on each other, a campfire with the ability to roast marshmallows, and a tree that grows and thrives with conversation, the environment in Firefly Island provides users many opportunities to discover elements and explore the environment in an interdependent way.
Firefly Island was designed and evaluated with users in the Neos VR platform over two design iterations. During the evaluations, users were able to freely explore the world as a pair, after which they shared their experience through an interview and video recording. This provided us qualitative insights on how users made use of social VR affordances in the world. In addition, we also obtained useful design knowledge that can be appropriated by designers and researchers to create future intimate experiences in social VR.
Some of the interesting findings were:
- Physical gestures and actions are a central part of intimacy in VR. To some users, being able to ‘feel’ virtual touch through the phenomenon of phantom touch makes physical interactions more intimate.
- Mirrors in VR have the potential to enhance physical interactions by increasing awareness of one’s virtual surroundings, and enhancing the sense of embodiment in an avatar.
- Social VR users can use more than just their avatar or voice to express themselves. Sometimes, even the world around them can be used to express emotions, agreement or interest in a multi-modal way.
- The hats in Firefly Island, which glow when users wearing them get close to each other demonstrated how physical interactions in VR can be complemented by accompanying visual feedback. This can be used to guide users towards specific locations or actions.
- Encouraging learning and teaching opportunities between users can be a way to foster interdependence and connection.
Firefly Island is a public world in Neos, where anyone can visit and explore it. It was also featured in the world browser within Neos, and now has over 500 visits. Feel free to give it a try yourself, but remember to take a friend along with you! I’d also be happy to give you a tour of the world; send me an email if you would like that.
Want to learn more? You might be interested in watching this talk where I presented my master’s thesis to the Edu-Science community in Neos. You can also download the full thesis as a PDF.
McVeigh-Schultz, J., & Isbister, K. (2021). The Case for “Weird Social” in VR/XR: A Vision of Social Superpowers Beyond Meatspace. DOI ↩︎