Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic brought hardship to many people around the world. To some, this meant that they could not physically meet their family and loved ones any more. We challenged ourselves to design a virtual experience that could help people overcome physical barriers and recreate the feeling of being present with another person who was far away. Together, my team and I created a stargazing experience for physically separated couples to experience co-presence and virtual intimacy in VR.
- Experience design
- Audio programming
Unity, Google Cardboard
In 2020, while the world was reeling from the impact of COVID-19, the instructors of the course Designing Interactive Experiences at University of Twente ran into a confounding problem. The course was normally about designing and creating a physical interactive experience or installation in a real-world setting. However, this time the pandemic threw a wrench into the works and the instructors were forced to organise the entire course in an online format.
There was however a brilliant solution to the problem–what if the pandemic itself was made the focus of the course this time? How can we use interactive technology to solve problems created by COVID-19? This is where my team, group F (F stands for fantastic) came into the picture. We realised that lockdowns and social distancing had limited who we could meet physically. We wanted to tackle this problem of lost interpersonal contact and intimacy brought on by the pandemic.
During the initial brainstorming, we came up with a lot of ideas individually. We then selected a few best best ones and discussed them via video call. Some of the ideas that made the list included a shared alarm clock for falling asleep and waking up together remotely, and a virtual cooking experience for cooking the same dish with someone far away. However, we emphasised the value of a synchronised, shared virtual environment as it could bring a feeling of co-presence that was missing from normal online communication.
Look at the stars, look how they shine for you
Among the ideas we came up with, the concept of stargazing stood out to us. We realised that lying down with someone under the night sky could be a profoundly intimate experience. We even split the team into pairs and tried it out for ourselves through the technique of bodystorming (however this had to be done in a virtual way–where we lay on our own beds, talked through through voice call, and used a star tracker app).
We also realised that VR was the perfect medium to use when designing such an experience, as it could closely approximate the feeling of being present with another person. We decided to use Google Cardboard as it was the most accessible way for us and our target group to experience our vision.
The idea of our app was simple. Two users would put on their VR headset and lie down in a comfortable space, while the app brought them together under a virtual night sky. The users would be connected through voice during the experience, and they both would get visual and auditory cues that indicated the other user’s presence next to them. A virtual pointer indicated where the other person was looking, so that users could, for instance, point out a specific star.
Once the basic concept was nailed down, we performed a demo with other students from the same course who volunteered, and obtained useful feedback from them. We also looked for ways to enhance the experience beyond its basic form. One such enhancement was the addition of a playful game mode, where users would try to find a specified constellation together.
We designed the enhancements such that the level of intimacy would progressively increase as users experienced the app. The users would start out with a fun and playful game mode, from where they could unlock a ‘cozy’ mode which featured relaxing music and shooting stars along with ice-breaker questions that encouraged conversation. Finally, there was also an intimate mode where the questions were deeper to encourage greater self-disclosure.
The implementation part of the application, which was developed in Unity was a combined effort with the group members. I focused on programming the audio part of the app, which included the voice connection, sound effects, and background music. I also implemented a visual indicator that reacted to the remote participant’s voice, which played a role in creating a sense of presence. One of the little details that I added to the project was the soft sound of grass rustling whenever the users moved their heads, which added another hint of co-presence in the virtual space.
Check out the product video that we made for our app at the end of the course:
Taking it further
In late 2020, we submitted our experience to the VPRO Tegenlicht Pionier 2020 contest by Dutch television channel VPRO which had the theme of Touching Technology, where they looked for innovations using technology that can help us feel connected with others. Our stargazing experience made it to the list of finalists, and was featured in an article (in Dutch) about intimate technology. The app also made a short appearance in a documentary about combating loneliness in the modern age, which was aired on VPRO.