Virtual gateways and event boundaries

Gateways are quickly becoming a common method of transitioning users from one scene to the next. You can build portals, doors, or windows, and the idea is the same for each: being able to move from one side of a gateway to the other marks a transition from one environment or viewpoint to the next.

Using gateways comes with some interesting psychological impacts that help define why they work so well as trasitional elements. Aside from gateways being a pretty cool feature in general — stepping through a literal doorway into another world is the tangible act of what VR is metaphorically providing to humankind — our working memory is impacted in a cool way as well.

When you walk through a doorway, it serves as a trigger for the mind to file memories away.

A psychologist named Gabriel Radvansky performed a series of studies on the cognitive impacts of passing through a doorway, or "event boundary". Radvansky found that subjects in his experiment had forgotten more after walking through a doorway as opposed to staying in the same room, suggesting that the event boundary itself actually inhibits a subject's ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions made in the room prior.

The impact of passing through an event boundary manifests as a release of working memory load. When you walk through a doorway, be it real or simulated, the act serves as a trigger for the mind to file memories away, freeing up space for us to process the new environment we're in. All of us have experienced this in realtime at some point, getting up to go take care of something in a different room and then finding ourselves standing in that room with no idea why we're there or what we were intending on doing.

The most compelling aspect? Radvansky did his doorway experiments in both the physical world and a virtual one. Physical or simulated, the results were the same: people who experience moving through a doorway make memory adjustments, discarding information gathered in the previous room.

"When we walk from one room to another, information about people and objects that we were dealing with in the old room is less likely to be relevant, and it appears our memory machinery is optimized to take advantage of this, releasing that old information to make information about the new situation more accessible."
Jeffrey M. Zacks, psychology professor and director of The Dynamic Cognition Laboratory

The human brain holds onto a limited model of the world that stays active in our awareness, relying on the fact that we can always check in with reality if we need a quick update. Whether you see it as lazy or efficient, brains are great at making decisions for us about what's worth expending cognitive resources on in order to recreate the real world inside our heads. When reality is constantly available to perceive through our senses, why waste the effort and energy on modeling a detailed high-fidelity version of reality when we can perpetually check in with it whenever we want to?

But if the environment changes, or if we move to a new environment say, through a doorway, then we may lose information that we really only built in broad strokes inside our heads and subsequently fail to notice changes in the environment. Noticeable ones, even. There's been plenty of studies, cousins to the doorway one Radvansky did, on how people react to changes in environment. They all strike upon the numerous failures that can occur when our brains fail to recognize discrepancies between the real world and our cognitive working model of it.

VR designers can use gateways as a method of supporting the cognitive transition happening in the between-space.

It doesn't matter if you're designing a lobby for launching applications, a communal space for socializing, or a game with multiple discrete locations. VR designers can use gateways as a method of supporting the cognitive transition happening in the between-space. Freeing up mental resources can be a great way to visually punctuate changes in location, time, scenery, or state. We can also make educated choices about what features or events to keep in the same "room" so we don't fight against the user's brain wanting to wipe the working memory slate clean if we have them traverse through a gateway in the middle of a mentally-taxing activity.

Of course, this type of mental state change can also be used against the user's brain: a mechanic that centers around changing details of the environment when you're not paying attention to them, like the VR experience Sightline uses, forcing the user to pay attention to what they would otherwise miss and put even more pressure on their working memory. It can also be used to create a powerful sense of dread/uneasiness, like we saw in the Silent Hill PT demo, since the world around us is behaving in an unexpected way. We could also use a strategically-placed gateway to help the user take a cognitive load off and mentally prepare for the next experience or task.

Above: a demo playthrough of Sightline for the Rift

How the brain processes & stores information about the reality it experiences offers a new lens through which to examine the work being done in virtual reality. Insights from studies like Radvanksy's help work toward best practices and the optimal user experience within VR design.

Further reading:

"Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations." by Radvanksy et al


Adrienne Hunter

Founder @ Tomorrow Today Labs. Co-creator of NewtonVR.com and insistent on good UX in virtual reality.