Nobody wants enthusiasts at a virtual reality party

Photo: Midjourney Courtesy of MIXED

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One study looks at the instances in which visitors to virtual parties feel particularly uncomfortable and the element that promotes immersion.

How much realism is needed to make visitors to virtual reality parties feel like they are in a real event? Spanish researchers asked themselves this question and tried to capture the feelings of virtual reality party-goers in a study.

The results show that virtual audiences at VR concerts can have a greater impact on users than performing on stage, and being alone among strangers in VR is not fun. But the experience has weaknesses.

Researchers recreate a live Dire Straits concert in virtual reality

The University of Barcelona has recreated a live performance by rock band Dire Straits in virtual reality for study. A ten-minute clip from a 1983 concert shows a performance of what may be their most famous song, “Sultans of Swing”.

Unlike immersive VR concerts like those of Bastille, where only a video is embedded in a VR environment, here a virtual version of the band is shown on stage. The audience also consists of virtual people.

For the study, a total of 26 people were equipped with VR headsets and found themselves approximately sixth grade in front of the virtual stage at a VR concert. All participants attended the VR concert alone and stood in a fixed location surrounded by animated fans from the audience.

After the event, all participants wrote down their self-perceptions. In particular, they were asked to indicate their feelings during the concert, to note their movements and those of the audience, and to record aspects that enhanced immersion as well as those that were somewhat disturbing.

Virtual reality party-goers were afraid of the audience

During the study, the researchers increased the quality of the animations, lighting, and ambient sounds, which also included conversations between the virtual guests.

They also added an option for interaction: If participants looked at a hypothetical person in their vicinity, there was a high probability that that person returned the look with a smile for one to three seconds.

Das animierte Publikum sorgte mit seinen Blicken bei Nutzer: innen für Unbehagen.

The animated audience made users uncomfortable with their appearance. | Photo: University of Barcelona

In fact, the researchers hypothesized that feedback such as eye contact with animation would increase subjects’ perception of reality. However, most participants felt put off by the VR audience’s reactions.

Both male and female participants described their discomfort in their field reports. Some excerpts from their reports:

  • “…as I turned around the people closest to me stopped watching the concert and turned their attention to me. I might have been imagining it, but it was a little scary.”
  • “When I turned in someone’s direction, they just stared at me until I turned back, which was a little unsettling.”
  • “Every time I looked at the woman to my right and the woman to my left a little behind me, they would turn to look at me and stare for the amount of time I would expect a friend to stare at. Because they are strangers to me, I didn’t expect them to acknowledge my gaze or look into their own eyes for a moment.” Heart Their bodies and looking at me for a long time made me feel uncomfortable.”
  • “The applause didn’t sound right to me. It sounded as if it was also coming out of the guitar speakers in place like the music. I expected it to be much louder and closer to me.”
  • The crowd stood apart from what was expected.
  • “At no point did I really feel like I was in a real concert. Starting with the band, I missed out on interacting with the crowd as well as within the band itself.”
  • “The crowd seemed so spaced apart — like it was a socially distanced party, that it drew me out.”

However, the virtual audience wasn’t just annoyed by their plain looks. Although none of the characters responded to the human participants in the first part of the study or during the entire concert, some still felt noticeable afterwards.


Of course, these impressions may depend on the application used, which in this case is not particularly high quality graphically (see end of article).

Lack of variety and movement is a mood killer

Another major criticism between male and female was that the audience consisted exclusively of women by default. A circumstance that constantly caused the irritation and disorder of immersion.

The audience’s inability to move to the stage, inappropriate crowd movement and noise, and the band’s lack of mobility have also been criticized as leading to immersion disorder.

On the plus side, many liked the spatial sound of live music and crowd noise. This gave the test subjects the feeling that they were in the audience in front of a real theatre. In general, the The virtual reality party was received more positively by men than women.

Audience behavior was more important to immersion than what was happening on stage

The virtual audience was more likely to provide an immersive experience when clapping, dancing, and cheering were in sync with the music and dynamics of Dire Straits’ virtual reality performance. When that wasn’t the case, users were disconnected from the experience.

Overall, the researchers found that the users’ individual moods were dominated by reactions to the crowd rather than the band. Being alone among virtual strangers at a concert seems to be a bit of a social threat to some of the participants.

However, the study design is quite questionable, as it is not a real-life re-enactment concert. Static and mobile virtual concertgoers remind me of the VR version of Emily Wants To Play. I don’t need a study to know that having someone stare at me all the time for no reason scares me.

The results of this study read very much like self-fulfilling prophecies, based on the lackluster execution described and seen in the video: If you create a technically flawed, one-dimensional virtual environment — what do you think the reception would be?

However, social VR developers can leave out one or two points from the study, such as the suitability of audience behavior for immersion.

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