Seven Rules for Believable VR

By Will Freeman,


The word 'presence' is never far from talk of VR. While some may reject it as a buzzword hijacked by overenthusiastic marketeers, it does serve to capture what is perhaps the most potent ability of virtual reality broadly.

But how does a developer deliver presence? How do they make a VR experience not just engrossing, but convincing?

Dr Kimberly Voll has some of the answers. A long-serving cognitive scientist specializing in game development, AI and UX, she has recently contributed to Northway Games' beguiling VR experience Fantastic Contraption. All of which has given her a particularly informed notion with regards to how content makers can deliver believable VR experiences.

It all starts, she explains, with the fact that the human body carries with it a powerful arsenal of systems that ground it reality, which thunder away whether you are strapped into a VR headset, or simply imagining a faraway place.

“There is a whole complex system of signals that are being sent to your brain in this moment, that are telling you loud and clear that your butt is here," Voll offers. "It is in your chair. Your butt is talking to you. The orientation of your body is talking to you. The entire complex system of proprioceptors, your vestibular system, the visual cues and me talking to you; all of these things make you feel like you are [where you really are].”


Presence, meanwhile, is defined as the pervasive sense of being somewhere. Those human systems grant us presence in reality, while quality VR experiences give users presence in the digital realm. But importantly, Voll asserts, VR does not by default assure a sense of presence, for the very reason that it must convince the aforementioned systems to succeed.

VR does, though, provide visual and aural cues, as we've seen previously on the Vision blog. But that alone can sometimes not be enough, especially as experienced users’ bodies adapt as they spend more time in VR.

Fantastic Contraption, on which Dr Voll worked
The beguiling Fantastic Contraption may not be a work of realism, but in part thanks to Dr Voll's contributions to the project, it offers a remarkably convincing, beliveable world

“You do acclimate," Voll confirms, touching on the 'wow factor' moment that delivers powerful presence to those new to VR. "That loud signal becomes gradually quieter and quieter, and what once was completely occupying your mind starts to fade, and other things start to become louder.”

Those other factors call out to a VR user's conscience from outside the headset, encouraging them to consider the literal world over virtual distractions, chipping away at engagement and believability. Fortunately, there is much that can be done to make VR experiences convincing and believable, even for consumers well versed in what it is to experience virtual reality. And Voll is entirely happy to share insights on how to deliver that believability.


Consider the power of users hand movements “Allow the player to extend into the VR world in a natural way. The main way that we do that in our actual world is through hands. I don’t as an individual – consciously or unconsciously – care too much about the position of my arms. But I sure as heck care where these devices, [my hands], are.”

Inconsistent virtually reality breaks the user experience; be consistent "This doesn’t mean it all has to be high-res. It doesn’t mean that all low-res is great. It’s just important that it’s all the same res. And I don’t just mean visual res; I mean the auditory, etcetera.”

Make your VR world entirely diegetic “You need to make the things that you add to your world feel that they are part of that world. To translate that into something more concrete, you as the designer of any experience need to decide on that core experience. Who are the people in this world? How do they interact in this world? What are the rules of this world?”

Your users know being human; build around natural interactions and real-world movements “Respect human beings as beings that move about the world and are experts themselves in the physics of the natural world that we are trying to replicate in our games."

Incongruous UI can break the illusion “There are lots of different ways in which we are creating experiences where the communication that we are trying to establish doesn’t necessarily fit in, in the traditional UI way. There’s no drop down menu [that would feel appropriate in many games], or if you try and bolt something onto somebody’s face and move around, unfortunately that tends to make people sick, or at the very least uncomfortable."

Respect the player; Create safe VR spaces that users can trust to maintain believability “People may not give in to the experience – and some simply won’t let go – if they’re not comfortable. It is our responsibility to keep our players –and those consuming our content – safe. We should never take advantage of their trust. We should never do things that would violate the creation of a believable experience.”

Players don’t always need taking elsewhere “You don’t have to convince somebody that they are somewhere else. What you're probably trying to do is engage them. And when they’re engaged, they don’t necessarily need to think they are somewhere else.”

Owlchemy's Job Simulator
Owlchemy's Job Simulator, a favourite of Voll's, and an example of what she sees as UI that fosters believability in VR


Consider those rules, and your VR creation may do plenty to counter the biological systems of real-world presence. There is much more to it, certainly, but these general guides should start you out on the path to building more immersive, convincing experiences.

They are, of course, suggestions for an evolving medium rather than infallible rules, and as Voll is acutely aware, there remains a significant challenge, even if it also the very thing that makes VR so powerful. That 'wow factor' typically makes first time VR users instant converts to the form, but it is not without limiting elements.

"For developers that [factor] means it is very hard to play test consistently, when everyone’s minds are constantly blown by everything that they see in VR," says Voll. "Not that everyone’s everything isn’t mind-blowing, but at some point we want to get down to the meat of what is the experience, so that we can actually pick it apart and figure out what’s working, and what’s not working.”

In other words, for VR to improve broadly as a medium, users, makers and the industry need to see through the muddy waters of the 'wow', and consider the deeper experience. The solution to that, ultimately, is getting more testers playing your in-development VR content, and perhaps more importantly, encouraging the general public to become experienced with VR generally.

That is what most VR proponents are doing; sharing this arresting new form with as many people as possible, hoping it may become as prominent and everyday as the smartphone and television.

The collective journey of developing virtual reality must continue so content makers can offer more than a fleeting moment of 'wow', and deliver consistently powerful believability

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