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A Comparison of Behaviours and Responses towards Different Social VR Environments in Initial Social Interaction
  • Seung Jin Chung : Department of Human Environment & Design, PhD candidate, Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea
  • Hyun-jae Jo : Department of VR Game Contents, Associate Professor, Shingu College, Seongnam, Korea
  • Hyunju Lee : Department of Human Environment & Design, Professor, Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea

Background Despite the significant level of recent interest in social virtual reality (VR), there has been little discussion about environment design considerations that affect social interactions. This study suggests two possibilities for environment design in social VR. One is reality-based worlds where the definition of place is obvious, and the other is virtuality-based worlds where the definition of place is ambiguous. This study aims to explore environment roles in social VR by comparing behaviours and users’ responses in the two environments, with a focus on the early stages of social VR.

Methods This study collected data from 46 research participants who were assigned to a team and arranged in a virtuality-based or reality-based environment setting. In order to explore initial social interactions, data of exploration and meeting sessions were collected. The differences in behaviour, according to their environment, were compared based on the coding scheme via video recording. For qualitative analysis, a contextual interview was held to understand affective responses by the given environment and the environmental factors influencing behaviours.

Results As a result of the behaviour observation analysis, specific behaviours were prominent according to the provided environment designs in the early stages of social interactions. Significantly, we found that the behaviour of gazing at other participants (S_HeD) was significantly higher in the virtuality-based environment, and the behaviour of manipulating objects (In_Obj) was prominent in the reality-based space during the exploration session. On the other hand, the gap in behaviour decreased during the meeting session. As a result of the interview analysis, it was revealed that the virtuality-based environment indicates freedom to users, while the reality-based environment provides familiarity.

Conclusions This research contributes to exploring the design possibilities and considerations through user data analysis of the different social VR environments. The study illustrates the importance of environment design in social VR and showes that the design can induce specific behaviours according to its contextual meaning. Also, social interactions can be motivated depending on how users affectively accept the environment. Understanding the role of environment design is significant for successful social VR functioning.

Metaverse, Social VR, User Experience, Virtual Environment Design, Virtual World.
pISSN: 1226-8046
eISSN: 2288-2987
Publisher: 한국디자인학회Publisher: Korean Society of Design Science
Received: 08 Apr, 2022
Revised: 03 Jun, 2022
Accepted: 03 Jun, 2022
Printed: 31, Aug, 2022
Volume: 35 Issue: 3
Page: 53 ~ 67
DOI: https://doi.org/10.15187/adr.2022.
Corresponding Author: Hyunju Lee (hyunju@yonsei.ac.kr)
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Funding Information ▼
Citation: Chung, S. J., Jo, H., & Lee, H. (2022). A Comparison of Behaviours and Responses towards Different Social VR Environments in Initial Social Interaction. Archives of Design Research, 35(3), 53-67.

Copyright : This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/), which permits unrestricted educational and non-commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited.

1. Introduction

Social virtual reality (VR) has only recently captured the attention of such industries as entertainment, business, and education. The research on social VR can be traced back to work on collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) (Freeman & Maloney, 2021; Jonas et al., 2019). Computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) and VR technologies aided the development of CVEs, and both social VR and CVE studies facilitate social interactions as much as face-to-face contact (Benford et al., 2001). However, it may well be difficult to consider them synonyms because CVEs encompass a broader spectrum of virtual environments ranging from three-dimensional immersive environments to 2.5D, 2D, and text-based environments (Snowdon et al., 2001). Meanwhile, social VR is primarily focused on the immersive experience, generally provided by head-mounted displays (Baker et al., 2020; McVeigh-Schultz et al., 2019). This study defined social VR as an immersive three-dimensional space where people can meet, interact, and create together using immersive VR devices.

Despite the significant level of recent interest in social interactions in a virtual world, there has been little discussion about environmental design considerations in this domain. The social VR environment, a visually rendered three-dimensional virtual space, is an important factor in determining the social frame (McVeigh-Schultz et al., 2019) as it affects individual behaviour and the quality of experience (Burgoon et al., 2016). For example, architectural elements can facilitate or regulate social interactions by establishing a sense of place and inducing specific social behaviours in a given setting (Patterson & Quadflieg, 2016).

Additionally, virtual space has been generally implemented to resemble an actual physical environment, where users interact in a manner comparable to the real world through avatars. However, not all virtual worlds are direct imitations of the real world (Bowman & Hodges, 1999), and it is worthwhile to examine a virtual environment that does not reflect the real world. Thus, this study explores two possibilities for environment design in social VR: reality-based worlds where the definition of place is obvious and virtuality-based worlds where the definition of place is ambiguous. The aim of this study is to explore how each environment plays a role in social VR, especially in the early stages of social interaction by comparing nonverbal behaviours and users’ responses in the two different environments.

2. Literature Review
2. 1. Social VR

Social VR is an immersive three-dimensional space where people can meet, interact, and create together using immersive VR devices. It is a virtual world related to the concept of the metaverse. ‘Metaverse’ is a portmanteau of ‘meta’ (meaning ‘beyond, virtual’) and ‘verse’ (shorthand for ‘universe’) (Dionisio et al., 2013). Metaverse was introduced by Neal Stephenson, in his science fiction novel Snow Crash in 1992. For a long time, it remained a concept without successful implementation because of technical limitations (Davis et al., 2009; Ondrejka, 2004). However, in recent years, advanced technologies, such as VR, mixed reality (MR), artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain have converged into the concept of the metaverse. Consequently, today’s metaverse has been presented with feasible possibilities in various sectors such as society, education, and business (Díaz et al., 2020; Jeon et al., 2022) as a fully immersive three-dimensional digital environment (Dionisio et al., 2013). To achieve the ideal of the metaverse, real-time interactivity (Nevelsteen, 2018) and user creation (Davis et al., 2009; Ondrejka, 2004) are required. Similarly, the ultimate goal of social VR is to create new value within a virtual world. Users can construct values in social contexts. Objects created from raw materials can become exceedingly valuable because of users’ time and effort, and their worth is determined by the market (Ondrejka, 2004). To achieve this, prerequisites such as social presence (Yassien et al., 2020), social interaction (e.g., intimate conversation) (Moustafa & Steed, 2018), and interpersonal trust (Mütterlein et al., 2018) are required. Furthermore, the provided environments are expected to contribute to establishing specific social contexts.

2. 2. Environment design in Social VR

Environment design is significant to social VR design, which is challenging as it considers several trade-offs in different contexts. While the number of social VR applications has increased significantly in recent years, the state of social VR design has become more obscured, making it more difficult to identify adoption-worthy design trends, best practices, and features (Gunkel et al., 2018; Jonas et al., 2019). Existing research shows that virtual environment design (scene or place) is important in determining the social frame (McVeigh-Schultz et al., 2019). In the real world, attractive places positively affect experience quality (Burgoon et al., 2016), and architectural features influence social interaction (Benford et al., 2001; Gebhard et al., 2019; Patterson & Quadflieg, 2016). Similarly, in virtual worlds, creativity can be fostered (Fleury et al., 2021) and people can engage in more social interactions according to the way simulated environments are designed (Tanenbaum et al., 2020; Yassien et al., 2020).

2. 3. Social VR environment types

Virtual environment simulation can be divided into virtuality-based and reality-based environments, related to the ontology of VR (See Table 1). The term VR is paradoxical by compounding the two words, ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’ (Strate, 1999). The virtuality-based environment is associated with the concept of paraspace. The term ‘paraspace’ was first used by science fiction author Samuel R. Delany to describe a space in which the forms or laws of natural and social relationships differ radically (Bukatman, 1992). This imagined space can be produced by inverting, abstracting, or contradicting ordinary environments (Burrows, 2020). This aesthetic approach is related to futurism, abstract art, and constructivism (Mura, 2007).

Table 1
Social VR environment types

Types Virtuality -based Reality-based
Characteristics fictional/imaginary/unrealised realistic/ordinary/realised
Sense of place undefined defined
Denotative meaning abstract space familiar place
(e.g. auditorium, home)
Connotative meaning freedom limited with rules
(Source: Spatial)

The reality-based environment is focused on accurate representation rather than imagination. A virtual world that presents a reality environment has a positive effect in that it eliminates the cost and risks of the real world. This environment type can be used for simulation (Heydarian et al., 2015) or therapeutic purposes (Flobak et al., 2019, García-Batista et al., 2020). Also, users can have the experiences they wish they could enjoy in the real world, such as travelling. This aesthetic approach is related to realism or hyperrealism (Kullmann, 2014). As indicated in Table 1, two distinct approaches to environment design can be suggested, which have significantly different denotative and connotative meanings, and little is known about how these distinctions affect user experiences. Additionally, these two types of environment design can be presented as a spectrum concept, as seen in Figure 1. The spectrum can include other design possibilities, such as the less familiar reality-based space or the less abstract virtuality-based space.

Figure 1 The social VR environment design spectrum
3. Methods
3. 1. Research design

We designed an experiment to compare the differences between the social VR environment types. This study focuses on the initial social interactions when entering a social VR platform to explore the role that each environment which plays during building social relationships prior to collaboration. Environment designs were selected through a social VR platform based on their expected characteristics (Figure 1). The virtuality-based setting was a vague space, like a vacant dome; the reality-based setting was a meeting room with a table. These two settings are surrounded by walls, as though they were indoor spaces. However, they were recognised as different spaces. To explore the role of each environment, behaviour observation by video recording and one-to-one interviews were adopted as qualitative research approaches.

The study hypothesises that specific behaviour types could be shown differently according to environment designs. Nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, posture, and body movement, includes more information than verbal communication, and is considered accurate and trustworthy due to its spontaneous and uncontrolled characteristics (Burgoon et al., 2016; Frank, 2016). This study collected nonverbal behaviour data which can be observed by avatar representation. Also, after the experiment, contextual interviews were conducted and the collected interview data was analysed by the thematic analysis process.

3. 2. Settings and procedure

The Oculus Quest was used as the chosen VR device, and Mozilla Hubs was chosen as the social VR platform as it is a closed platform and well-suited for a control. It also provides a creation menu to lead various tasks with participants and supports various devices, including desktops and head-mounted displays. The two environment conditions used in the experiment were selected among scenes offered by the Mozilla Hubs platform. Consequently, the graphic style and visual fidelity of two selected scenes are comparable. A virtuality-based space was an empty dome-shaped space with a grey floor and a blue-toned ceiling.

The reality-based space was a rectangular-shaped meeting room with light grey walls and a wooden floor, with a large table in the centre of the room. There was also a marker board on one of the walls, and small flowerpots on the desk that could not be moved.

During the experiment, individuals were placed in separate physical locations to interact with each other in the virtual space. Participants were divided into groups of three or four and randomly assigned to one of two environmental settings. They signed a consent form and trained on how to use VR equipment prior to the experiment (See Figure 2). The procedure of the experiment consisted of three parts: exploration, meeting, and collaboration. This study delivers a set of data representing the early stages of social VR participation, exploration, and meeting (See Figure 2). During the exploration phase, individuals were free to wander around a space or interact with one another without being directed. Participants then got to know each other during a five-minute meeting. The meeting’s objective was to acquire at least three new pieces of information from each participant. This reflects the general experience of social VR. After the experiment, the 1:1 interview was conducted.

Figure 2 The procedure of experiment
3. 3. Participants

Participants who expressed an interest in VR experiences were recruited. No participation restrictions were imposed, except for being over 18 years. As shown in Table 2, a total of 46 people were involved in this study. The gender distribution of the participants was 21 male and 25 female (Virtuality-based: Male = 11, Female = 12; Reality-based: Male = 10, Female = 13), and most of the participants were in their 20s (Virtuality-based: 20s = 22, 30s = 1; Reality-based: 20s = 18, 30s = 4, 40s = 1). Most of them had no or fewer than five VR experiences. All participants had time to get used to the device before the experiment. The study was approved by the Yonsei University Institutional Review Board. Participants were recruited through the university’s offline and online bulletin boards. All participants were informed and given advance notice of the details of the study (e.g., purpose, procedure, anonymous data reporting) and any risks such as dizziness that may occur owing to the VR device experience. The activity did not require a lot of movement and the total time taken was less than 30 minutes.

Table 2
Overview of participants

Case Team ID Participant ID
Virtuality-based VT1 P1 P2 P3
VT2 P4 P5 P6
VT3 P7 P8 P9
VT4 P10 P11 P12
VT5 P13 P14 P15
VT6 P16 P17 P18 P19
VT7 P20 P21 P22 P23
Reality-based RT1 P24 P25 P26
RT2 P27 P28 P29
RT3 P30 P31 P32
RT4 P33 P34 P35
RT5 P36 P37 P38
RT6 P39 P40 P41 P42
RT7 P43 P44 P45 P46

3. 4. Data analysis

Coding schemes, which can be thought of as measuring instruments, just like rulers and thermometers, are central to observational methods (Bakeman, 2011). The observation was undertaken through video recording to compare nonverbal behaviours. Nonverbal cues can be observed through specific behaviours shown by avatars. This study classified nonverbal behaviour into three categories, referring to the research by Maloney et al. (2020): social behaviour, individual behaviour, and disturbing behaviour. Social behaviour and disturbing behaviour could be regarded as behaviours characterised by favourable or disagreeable social interactions. By contrast, individual behaviours are difficult to regard as having social meaning in themselves, even though they might lead to social behaviour eventually. In this experiment, a given object does not indicate an element of an environmental design. Instead, objects were selected by a participant according to individual preferences or needs from the create menu provided by the platform. The video recorded by each participant was coded in seconds using the ATLAS software, and observed codes are shown in Table 3. On the other hand, the recorded interview data were transcribed and analysed. The dimensions of analysis were affective responses in relation to the environment and environmental factors influencing behaviour.

Table 3
Coding scheme for behaviour analysis

Category Description Embodied Code
Social behaviour
Directing one’s gaze to others in order to pay attention Head S_HeD
Handing something over or pointing to attract attention Hand S_HaP
Waving one's hand (s) to another to socialise Hand S_HaW
Individual behaviour Exploration through head movement Head In_HeExp
Exploration through body movement
(teleporting or walking)
Body In_Exp
Searching for an object N/A In_SrOb
Working with an object (e.g. moving, modifying its size, rotation, and arrangement) Hand In_Obj
Disturbing behaviour
Extensive movement, which may be upsetting to others Body D_BExM
Moving too close, which may embarrass others Body D_ BMtC
N/A Moving out of space N/A E_Oos

4. Results

The collected data were analysed according to the environment and the kind of session (i.e. exploration and meeting). Figure 3 shows the results of comparing the behaviour categories observed by the environment and converted into percentages. In the virtuality-based environment, social behaviour was more prominent, and in the reality-based environment, individual behaviour was more prominent. Table 4 shows the mean values of each participant’s observed behaviour in seconds by code. The Mann-Whitney U test for comparing the groups indicate that the behaviour of handing something over or pointing to attract attention (S_Hap) and moving the body to explore space (In_Exp) was significantly higher in a virtuality-based environment (p<.05) as seen in Table 4.

Figure 3 Comparison of behaviour categories
Table 4
Comparison of behaviour types

Variable Type N M SD U p
S_HeD Virtuality -based 23 309.26 129.67 207.5 .210
Reality-based 23 258.04 103.58
S_HaP Virtuality -based 23 2.13 4.72 204 .033**
Reality-based 23 0.09 0.41
S_HaW Virtuality -based 23 12.78 15.97 188 0.63
Reality-based 23 5.70 10.43
In_HeExp Virtuality -based 23 25.35 24.36 207 .204
Reality-based 23 37.26 30.60
In_Exp Virtuality -based 23 64.74 55.19 161 .021**
Reality-based 23 32.87 43.23
In_SrOb Virtuality -based 23 10.26 18.21 228.5 .376
Reality-based 23 17.22 27.25
In_Obj Virtuality -based 23 36.30 48.95 183 .070
Reality-based 23 108.52 123.30
D_BExM Virtuality -based 23 8 16.17 243 .495
Reality-based 23 1.22 2.80
D_ BMtC Virtuality -based 23 1.04 4.22 264.5 1.000
Reality-based 23 0.74 2.45

Figure 4 presents the results of the comparison between the behaviour categories during the exploration sessions, and Figure 5 shows the same for the meeting sessions. During the exploration session, social behaviour was more prominent in the virtuality-based environment while individual behaviour was more prominent in the reality-based environment, as shown in Figure 4. During the meeting session, there was no significant difference in behaviour (See Figure 5).

Figure 4 Comparison of behaviour categories during exploration

Figure 5 Comparison of behaviour categories during meeting

According to the Mann-Whitney U test results in Table 5, during the exploration session, the behaviour of gazing at others (S_HeD) was significantly higher in the virtuality-based environment (p<.05), whereas the behaviour of manipulating an object (In_Obj) was significantly higher in the reality-based environment (p<.05). In the meeting session, the behaviour of handing over or pointing (S_HaP) was found to be significantly higher (p<.05) in the virtuality-based environment. Figure 6 shows which behaviour is more prevalent in a virtuality-based or reality-based environment. The difference is more distinct in the exploration session than in the meeting session.

Table 5
Comparison of behaviour types during each session

Variable Session U Z p
S_HeD Exploration 166 -2.179 .029**
Meeting 260 -.099 .921
S_HaP Exploration 253 -1.000 .317
Meeting 195.5 -2.590 .010**
S_HaW Exploration 213.5. -1.451 .147
Meeting 213 -1.425 .154
In_HeExp Exploration 209 -1.237 .216
Meeting 208.5 -1.378 .168
In_Exp Exploration 220.5 -1.009 .313
Meeting 202 -1.648 .099
In_SrOb Exploration 199 -1.707 .084
Meeting 217 -1.783 .075
In_Obj Exploration 131.5 -3.096 .002**
Meeting 250 -.352 .725
D_BExM Exploration 264 -.031 .975
Meeting 247 -.615 .538
D_ BMtC Exploration 253 -1.000 .317
Meeting 264.5 .000 1.000

Figure 6 Comparison of behaviour types

The qualitative data from the interviews was analysed based on the thematic analysis process presented by Braun and Clarke (2006), which is an inductive analysis approach (See Figure 7). A thematic map was generated using the initial codes as shown in Figure 8, and themes were finally presented, constituting the affective responses by different environment designs and environmental factors that can affect users’ behaviours. First, the virtuality-based space was mostly perceived as spacious and cold, while the reality-based space was mostly perceived as friendly and warm. Second, in the virtual environment, provided empty space was mostly considered to have positively influenced one’s motivation and also enabled users to focus on others easily rather than hindering their social interactions. Conversely, participants who experienced the reality-based environment mentioned the windows as having a positive influence on exploring the space, while in the case of the table, some explained it positively, but others said that it made them uncomfortable when interacting with others.

Figure 7 Applied process for thematic analysis

Figure 8 Thematic map for interview analysis
5. Discussion

The study compared two social virtual spaces with different meanings and figured out the following findings. First, in the early stages of the social VR experience, behaviour can be different depending on the provided environment. It found that the behaviour of gazing at other participants (S_HeD) was significantly higher in the virtuality-based environment, and the behaviour of manipulating objects (In_Obj) was prominent in the reality-based space during the exploration session. However, the gap in behaviour decreased during the meeting session. As a result of the interviews, the virtuality-based environment was regarded as a space having a high level of freedom; on the other hand, the reality-based environment was regarded as a familiar space. The infinite possibility of a virtuality-based environment, not limited by social norms or rules, is considered to trigger relatively higher social behaviours (P12 ‘It felt like a different world from everyday life. I was able to focus more on conversing with virtual avatars because the area represented a virtual space rather than offices or meeting rooms’).

Second, a virtuality-based space can be considered another positive social space. As there is no need in the virtuality-based environment to represent any specific aspects of the real world, users can be free from potential social norms. Although it might be raised the issue of whether this setting is appropriate as a social space, the interviews showed that a virtuality-based space may have a positive effect on users' unconscious motivations (P5 ‘Because there was nothing in this space, I had the impression that I could do anything’). Additionally, the vacant space aided the other person’s attention (P10 ‘If something had been installed, it may have distracted me, and I would have spent some time observing them. However, because it was completely empty and there was nothing there, I was able to focus on those three people for five minutes, which was satisfactory’). This reflects a reason that the behaviour of paying attention to others (S_HeD) was higher in the virtuality-based space during the exploration session. However, at the same time, a few participants shared their experience of feeling awkward or embarrassed when faced with an empty space and were unsure of what to do (P17 ‘It was so awkward because there was nothing...’). This is related to a previous study which pointed out the importance of social catalysts in social VR (McVeigh-Schultz et al., 2019). Although the virtuality is not realised through the emptiness, an extreme virtuality-based setting may have no furniture or obstacles, and it was discovered that vacant space may encourage people to do something including social interactions. However, as participants mentioned the value of the virtuality-based environment contradictorily and also another aspect of virtuality-based environments might be suggested, more investigation is needed.

Third, in order for the objects provided in the reality-based space to accomplish their social functions, the object's purpose must be apparent. Otherwise, the object may become an obstacle. During the experiment, provided objects in a reality-based setting offered emotional stability for users (P28 ‘Because of the wood floors, it seemed familiar. It seemed like a typical office space’). However, it revealed that objects can also constrain one's activity unintentionally. For instance, a desk may help to assemble people, but also it may also drive users to the corner of a room. While some participants assessed the table as helpful (p36 ‘I felt encouraged to discuss something because of a desk.’), others said that the table hindered communication with others (P31 ‘There was a large desk in the room, and movement was constantly restricted. It was disturbing... the desk was too large.’). The unexpected discomfort was because of its ambiguous usage such as inappropriate size. Thus, if an object is designed with the expectation of successful social interactions, users should be able to recognise and accept why and how they use the object.

Finally, the study proposes further studies based on the findings and limitations of this study as follows. First, the study simply separated virtuality-based and reality-based spaces in the experiment. However, a follow-up study that classifies the environment design in more detail based on the environment design spectrum shown in Figure 1 is needed to explore other possibilities of environment design. For example, semi-featured elements such as furniture may be presented in a virtuality-based space, while a reality-based space might be empty in some cases. Second, studies that consider additional factors that can affect user experience are required. For instance, different types of object interaction or locomotion styles may expand one’s spatial experience. A user might evaluate a reality-based environment as a new space by providing unrealistic interaction types. However, there are very few studies on specific factors that influence the user experience of social VR, especially those related to environment design. Third, a team arrangement considering the difference in individual traits, experience level, or cultural characteristics might be considered. Even though the social-contextual meaning of the spatial environment can be common rather than personal (Benford et al., 2001; Gebhard et al., 2019; Patterson & Quadflieg, 2016), individual characteristics seem to affect how people evaluate an environment, which may also affect their overall experience in social VR.

6. Conclusion

The study defined the characteristics of virtuality-based and reality-based social VR environments in social VR and compared each setting. As a result of the behaviour observation and interviews in the social VR experiment conducted as a team, it found that a provided environment design may have an effect on future social interactions. Specifically, in the initial stage, active behaviour was higher in a virtuality-based environment, and individual behaviour interacting with an object was higher in a reality-based environment due to the affective responses according to the environment. Virtuality-based spaces indicate freedom to users, while reality-based spaces provide familiarity, and this contextual meaning in each environment can facilitate specific behaviours in a social VR platform.

This research contributes to exploring the possibilities and considerations of different social VR environment designs based on the perspectives of users. There are very few studies on the factors that influence the user experience of social VR so far, especially those related to environment design. This study lays the groundwork for examining the role of varied environment design in social VR. In addition, it is projected that additional aspects such as object interactions, locomotion types, and a variety of environment designs will be examined in further studies for more in-depth discussions regarding environment design in social VR.


This work was supported by the Yonsei University Research Grant of 2020.

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