OPINION

Virtual reality has a couch problem

Virtual reality has a couch problem

Most virtual reality content works sitting, standing, and walking. Those who want to consume while lying down are left behind. A plea for more couch compatibility.

I love VR games that are physically demanding. I move the furniture aside, put on my sneakers, and off I go. As long as I’m moving, training, and fighting, forgetting everything around me, I don’t even notice that I’m more or less standing in place for an extended period of time.

VR content with weak or no interactions is a different story. In this case, I feel the weight and inertia of my body after just a few minutes. Even the VR headset seems to press harder than usual.

Then comes the desire to pull up a chair. The disadvantages are obvious. Sitting affects the immersion and is not healthy, since I already sit a lot in everyday life. When it starts to pinch in the back, virtual reality is no fun.

Virtual reality and couch gaming: a contradiction?

If I want to relax in VR or play a game that doesn’t require too much physical activity, I prefer a different posture. I seek the couch in the living room and get into a semi-recumbent position, with my back leaning against the side rest and my legs bent or extended. This way, I enjoy virtual reality for an hour or two without getting tired.

Unfortunately, this does not work with all VR games. Since you hardly move your upper body in this posture and your hands have less room to move, it can happen that you only reach certain virtual objects with difficulty or not at all. Even reaching for a weapon or tool can be blocked by the physical couch. Incidentally, this is true even if you are sitting upright since you can’t let your arms hang at your sides.

There are solutions for couch VR

The industry has developed workarounds that solve the problem of a mismatch between virtual and physical posture with software tricks. Players virtually squat to reach lower objects or telekinetically pull objects toward them. Some VR games, such as Demeo (review), allow you to adjust your perspective with a few hand movements so that you can even play while lying down. But these are exceptions.

The industry can only be helped if more VR games support couch gaming. Or, at least develop a greater sensitivity for (semi-)prone game modes. As a result, consumers may reach for VR headsets more often at the end of the day instead of books, smartphones, remote controls, and game consoles. Media competition is fierce, and often the medium that is most convenient wins.

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Another positive effect would be that people who cannot sit, stand or walk for long periods for health reasons could enjoy more VR content.

The problem is the additional costs. The implementation comes at the expense of VR developers, who have to optimize their games for another game mode in addition to sitting, standing, and walking – which costs time and thus money. And many VR games are simply more fun when you move around more because your body contributes to the immersion.

VR interactions are still in development

The issue seems very VR-specific. Screens were stationary for decades, a circumstance that content and consumption modes adapted to. With handheld consoles, tablets, and smartphones, displays became so small and portable that they could be used from almost any posture. Still, developers had to invent new visual strategies and forms of interaction.

Virtual Reality seems to be an even bigger paradigm shift. This is because virtual reality involves the physical body and hands more and brings them into the experience. This ambition conflicts with the desire for comfortable VR.

The conventions of VR gaming are not yet set in stone and are still in flux. I’m curious to see where VR will be in a few years: whether it will move more in the direction of classic couch media consumption, or whether it will open up new worlds of interaction and entertainment as a purposefully physical medium.