Educational VR Game Design for Kids (Final solo project for Virtual Environments course, completed during Master's course of study at ISU)

Student -- UX, UI, and Concept design; Engineering (Unity, C#);

During my Master's course of study at ISU, I took a Virtual Environments class, wherein we were tasked with concepting, designing, and implementing a fully interactive Virtual Reality experience. For my project, I designed a children’s recycling game for Google Cardboard using techniques learned throughout the semester. The subsequent sections will provide an overview of the project objective, the hardware and software used for creating the game, and the final outcome of the project. Topics from the class and their relationship to design and implementation decisions for this project will also be discussed. 
Unity, C#, Sketch
Project Walkthrough
As Earth’s population grows so, too, does the amount of garbage produced on the planet each year. Many non-renewable, but recyclable, resources are mistakenly sent to landfill due to a lack of understanding surrounding recycling best practices (Xantha, 2017). If more individuals knew how to properly identify recyclable goods and direct them to the appropriate next stage in the waste management life-cycle, the volume of trash sent to landfill per capita could be reduced. As such, a significant opportunity exists to educate individuals about recycling best practices. The Recycling Game is a response to this opportunity, geared toward educating children about recycling best practices and the environmental impact associated with the appropriate identification of recyclable goods.

The Recycling Game is an educational Virtual Reality (VR) experience built for Google’s Cardboard VR Headset. Google Cardboard was selected as the delivery method for the game due to its low cost, ease of interaction, and low barrier to use. As a platform, Virtual Reality has demonstrated a capacity for facilitating learning among users. Because a high sense of self-presence can be experienced in VR, users often have strong personal associations with their virtual experiences (Jancke et al., 2014). This can facilitate improved learning and positive behavior changes in the real world.

The Recycling Game enables users to directly and positively impact their surrounding environment by correctly identifying recyclable goods. In the game, users can view their environment in all directions (360 degrees), navigate through space by tilting their head, and select collectible, recyclable items in the game simply by looking at them. As recyclable items are correctly identified, the player score shows a corresponding increase. This feedbacking reinforces the player’s learning by ensuring they are aware of their successes. As points are accumulated, the game environment changes in response to the success of the player, demonstrating the positive impact the user has had on their world. Ultimately, the goal of the game is to create associations between recycling and environmental impact for users with the goal of ultimately driving positive recycling behavior change in the real world.

Hardware and Software Used
During the research and planning phases of the project, Bohemian Coding’s Sketch software was used for the creation of two dimensional storyboards. The storyboards outlined the UI requirements and high level game functionality that would ultimately be translated into VR.

The Recycling Game was then developed in Unity 3D software using the Google SDK package for Google Cardboard. Google Cardboard was selected as the hardware for experiencing the game due to its low cost and ease of use. The low associated cost of purchasing a Cardboard headset will enable kids without access to expensive gaming consoles to learn about recycling in an immersive environment. Unity 3D was selected as the development platform for The Recycling Game because of its robust capabilities, easy to use editor, and wide array of prefabricated assets. The C# scripting language was used to execute custom functionality in the game, while the Google VR SDK provided functionality like the reticle pointer for selection, the VR viewer, VR event systems, and Raycasting capability.

To construct the environment and game objects, free 3D models were downloaded from the Unity Asset Store and TurboSquid. Both static and dynamic User Interface elements, like buttons and text, were constructed in the Unity interface.

The game was developed using an iMac and was built to run on iOS.

Final Product
The final outcome of this project is a minimum viable product (MVP) version of The Recycling Game. The MVP is a fully functional virtual reality game equipped with navigation, steering, selection, and scoring capabilities. At a rudimentary level, a sense of cause and effect has been built into the game to teach users about the benefits of recycling. This relationship manifests as a change in environment when the user wins the game.

Upon starting the game, a user first finds herself in a confined, landfill-like area, surrounded by  scrap metal, discarded electronics, and other ambient garbage. When the user turns their headset to look around the environment, they see cans, bottles, and styrofoam cups strewn across the surface of the ground. The recyclable objects are collectible and the user can ‘pick them up’ using a reticle pointer and gaze-based selection techniques.

As a user picks up recyclables, they see an increase in their player score which provides early and ongoing feedback about the success of their behavior in the context of the game. When a user mistakenly tries to select a non-recyclable item, there is no corresponding point decrement. The non-recyclable object simply remains in the scene, visually and spatially representing the permanence of non-recyclable, non-renewable trash in landfills. An auditory ‘error’ cue is also presented to reinforce the learning around which goods in the environment are non-recyclable.

To navigate around the environment, the user can tilt the Google Cardboard headset angle down to initiate a walking movement. The user can steer by turning their head in either direction. The user can navigate through the environment and collect recyclables until their score reaches ten points. Once the user’s point score has reached ten points, the environment changes to a greener, cleaner landscape. This visual shift creates a sense of cause and effect for the user and connects recycling behavior with positive environmental impact. In the final game sequence, all environmental trash is removed. The user finds herself in a vast, tree-filled expanse. A text based message is generated in the user interface and overtly communicates the benefits of recycling to the user. At this point, the user can either quit or restart the game.

Game Stills

Game Introduction

Gaze Based Selection - Start Button

The Environment

Google Cardboard Viewer

Exit Sequence
Relationship to Course Content
The field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) studies the relationship between humans and technology, with the ultimate goal of facilitating interactions that can improve the world for the better. During this class, we discussed how experiences in Virtual Reality and the design of Virtual Environments can be optimized based on what we know about humans. We learned how humans interact with virtual environments and the physical, emotional, and psychological factors which both drive and result from those interactions. We discussed such topics as presence, sensory perception, visual display requirements, selection techniques, and interaction techniques. Each of these topics heavily influenced decisions made when designing and implementing The Recycling Game. The subsequent sections will touch upon each of these and will discuss how they were used in the development of The Recycling Game.

Virtual Reality is a unique technology that, regardless of fidelity, can provide users with a sense of self-presence that is far more advanced than any two dimensional interaction. As a consequence, users tend to have real emotional and physiological responses to experiences they have in virtual environments which can impact them after returning to the real world. Our learnings about presence and the value of presence influenced my decision to use VR, rather than AR, as a platform for educating users in The Recycling Game. Because of its capacity for creating ‘sticky’ experiences, VR can serve as an excellent tool for behavior change.

Sensory Perception
To provide the user with a sense of full immersion, we learned that Virtual Environments must be designed with consideration to all of the ways humans interact with their natural environment. This includes the ways in which they perceive their environment from a sensory standpoint. One particular challenge in designing VR games arises in the context of designing for movement. We learned that motion sickness and vestibular disruption are common side effects of experiencing motion in VR. So, when designing the player movement script for The Recycling Game the camera angle used to initiate movement received considerable finessing to ensure the user would experience a smooth transition between standing to walking states. To minimize latency, both the camera angle control, as well as, the camera positioning in the environment had to be adjusted.

Visual Display
As with two dimensional interfaces, we learned that three dimensional interfaces in Virtual Reality must adhere to best practices in interface design. Interfaces in VR benefit from such characteristics as sufficient contrast for UI elements, logically placed and grouped elements, clear control mappings, and strong, salient affordances. In The Recycling Game, white text was used for UI elements. The size of the type is large so as to ensure legibility. Score Text is placed peripherally on the screen to minimize attentional disruption during game-play. When selecting items on the screen, feedbacking is provided to the user by way of the reticle pointer animation on hover, auditory error cues, and the player score increase on successful collection of an item.

Selection Techniques & Input Devices
In class we discussed new selection paradigms used in Virtual Environments, such as gazed-based inputs. In Google Cardboard, without additional hardware, users have limited ways to interface with game objects. A reticle pointer was chosen as the selection paradigm for The Recycling Game because it requires very little effort on part of the user to learn and use. As the target audience for this game is children, selection techniques which require very little coordination and dexterity can help reduce barriers to use. Additionally, intuitive selection paradigms can reduce the amount of on-screen text required to explain how one might interact with the environment.

Interaction Techniques
In this class, we learned about a variety of interaction paradigms for Virtual Reality which ranged from basic to extremely sophisticated. Google Cardboard interactions fall on the basic end of the spectrum as users are limited to what can be accomplished by tilting their head, turning, and directing their visual attention (gaze). Aside from a smartphone and a Cardboard headset, a user needs no other hardware to play The Recycling Game. To restate, in The Recycling Game users interact with selectable game objects using a reticle pointer which serves as a cursor. Users interact spatially with the environment by tilting the headset angle downward to trigger a walking script that allows for navigation.

Opportunities to Improve the Game (& Next Steps)
UX Design Tools & Workflow for VR: As a UX designer, I would have liked to have spent more timing learning the 2D tools that UX designers use for VR. And, I would have liked to have spent more time researching tactical UX design workflows for VR Games and Environments. As I live in The Bay Area, there are several UX for VR meetups that I will use as resources to learn more about how others in the industry work.

Game Sequencing and Level Setting: To better communicate the purpose of the game to the user, additional context toward the beginning of the game could be beneficial. I started to implement an introduction sequence which tells the user a story about the world they are about to enter. This was put on hold due to a combination of time constraints and challenges with connecting multiple scenes in the build. In future versions, this storytelling component will be introduced and refined for a more enjoyable, meaningful user experience.

Reward System: While a point system is a functional means of creating a sense of reward for the user, I would like to change the winning scene so that the user feels an overwhelming sense of victory. To do this, I think the introduction of people into the environment would help. As it stands, the final landscape is beautiful but it feels a bit lonely.

Button UI for Replay: While building the game, I constructed a gaze based menu from which the user can select a button by hovering over it with their Reticle pointer. The button features a loading animation which ceases when the user either moves the pointer off of the button or the scene changes. As with the introductory sequence, I had difficulty combining the menu scenes with the rest of the build and had to resort to using keyboard input to refresh the game. I recognize this is not a functional solution for the Cardboard game and, as such, this is the highest priority fix for the next version of the game.

Additional Sortable Goods: To further improve the game, I think more non-recyclable goods should be added to the environment. This added complexity will better educate users around recycling habits while creating a more engaging experience.

Colby, S. L., & Ortman, J. M. (2015). Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf.

Jäncke, L., Cheetham, M., & Baumgartner, T. (2009, May). Virtual Reality and the Role of the Prefrontal Cortex in Adults and Children. Retrieved October 03, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695391/
LaViola, Joseph J., et al. 3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice. Addison-Wesley, 2017.
Municipal Solid Waste. (n.d.). Retrieved October 03, 2017, from https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/web/html/
Stanford Projects Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved October 03, 2017, from https://vhil.stanford.edu/projects/2014/projects-archive/
Xantha Leatham For The Daily Mail. (2017, July 15). We're 'wasting our time' recycling! How 90% of us are making mistakes which result in our bottles, cans and paper going straight to landfill. Retrieved October 03, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4698460/We-wasting-time-recycling.html

Resources from Unity Asset Store:

Video Presentation Including Game Demo (for Class)

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