Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Virtual Reality and the Problem of Immersion

Virtual Reality and the Problem of Immersion

“Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air that takes over all our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.” – Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, 1997


Speaking in terms of the virtual world, the concept of immersion is often tied to a mimesis of reality—a depiction of an environment conveyed with high graphical fidelity that borders on the photorealistic. Yet, this is only one aspect of immersion. Immersion is a dual-natured phenomenon. The aforementioned form of immersion is best classified as representational immersion, but there exists another form: participatory immersion. That is to say, a virtual environment that looks and sounds realistic is only half the equation. To be truly immersive, users must be able to interact and participate in the environment—likewise, the environments themselves must be able to interact with the user—much the same way they do in real life. When VR can create experiences that marry representational and participatory forms of immersion, then the medium will have succeeded in creating a true sense of reality.

In 1976, contemporary art historian, Michael Fried wrote a book titled, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder In The Age of Diderot, in which he discusses mid-18th century French painting through the writings of one of the founding fathers of art criticism, Denis Diderot. What Fried refers to as “absorption” in painting is what those involved with videogames and VR call “immersion.” He defines it as “a particular state or condition…of rapt attention, of being completely occupied or engross or absorbed in what he or she is doing, hearing, thinking, feeling.”

Fried recounts the writings of Diderot and notes that when staring at particular pieces, like Claude-Joseph Vernet’s La Source Abondante, Diderot finds himself inside the world of the painting. This willingness to suspend your disbelief that what you are viewing is fake and ultimately enter the world you are viewing, thereby neglecting all else around you, is the ultimate form of immersion. From a representational point of view, immersion operates under the notion that a user is able to suspend their disbelief in the fiction of the virtual and become fully absorbed into the fictitious reality, to the point where it has masked or superseded aspects of the real world.

To understand how VR can achieve this type of representational immersion it is helpful to yet again turn to another art form—this time, literature. In an essay written in 1968 by literary critic Roland Barthes (and translated in 1986 by Richard Howard) titled “The Reality Effect,” Barthes examine the ways in which literature creates a series of “reality effects” which work to eliminate a competing sense of what the real is, thereby producing a type of understood reality. Barthes does this by analyzing Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), particularly the description of the city of Rouen, saying:

The aesthetic goal of Flaubertian description is thoroughly mixed with “realistic” imperatives, as if the referent’s exactitude, superior or indifferent to any other function, governed and alone justified its description…it is likely that, if one came to Rouen…the view one would have coming down the slope leading to the town would not be “objectively” different from the panorama Flaubert describes.

Essentially, what Barthes is saying, is that Flaubert counts on the authority of real-world Rouen to legitimize and validate the fiction he is presenting to take place there. If the setting is real, so too must the events taking place there, so goes the logic that’s encouraged. This use of deferring authority to what Barthes calls a “referent” is a type of “reality effect.”

making us believe in a fictional reality that has never actually existed

Bathes also describes another form of “reality effect,” which he calls “concrete reality;” this takes the form of superfluous and unnecessary objects that serve no narrative function other than the creation of believability. They are placed in a scene simply to exist and provide authenticity to a setting. In his discussion of Julian Barnes’ 1984 novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, Barthes highlights a passage describing the interior of a room, in which Barnes details nearly every object inside with the utmost detail. One object in particular catches Barthes’ attention, a barometer. According to Barthes, the barometer is, “neither incongruous nor significant, and therefore not participating, at first glance, in the order of the notable.” Yet, he posits that it does indeed have significance, not in connection to Flaubert’s story but by virtue of its connection to the general discursive practice of modern narrative realism.

While Fried and Barthes have provided a thorough backdrop for representational immersion, again, this is only one half of the equation. Painting and even literature are relatively passive mediums, to understand the participatory immersion VR needs to achieve, it is necessary to acknowledge another art form, one that is inherently interactive. This is where architecture comes into play. Whether you are conscious of it or not, architecture impacts how you behave and move through your environment. Architects have known this for centuries and have used it to design both public and private spaces. The most obvious way to understand it is by looking at the difference between hallways and open gathering spaces. Hallways are meant to be utilitarian, to get from one place to the next and facilitate movement and progression. They are not meant for lingering, conversation, or gathering. In contrast, vast open spaces like plazas, squares, or even family rooms are meant for congregation. You are encouraged to stop, pause, and linger in your environment. These spaces are best for conversation and exploration, they function to perpetuate social interaction. This is why a good common room can unite a college dorm while a bad one can end up isolating all its inhabitants.

Participatory immersion is largely dependent on agency and autonomy. In this sense it is helpful to look again at another art form, one which closely resembles VR. Yep, videogames. In their 2011 book Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, authors and psychologists Richard Ryan and Scott Rigby examine the need for player agency in creating immersion. The two discuss the more traditional notion of player agency—volitional choices, where players are given multiple options for progression and action and are able to only choose one, thereby rejecting or delaying other actions. However, there exists another form of autonomy, one which initially seems counterintuitive. They argue that autonomy and agency can manifest itself even in situations where there is only one available option presented to the player. As long as the game can convince the player that the one path presented before them is the path they want to take then autonomy is preserved.

Barthes’ notion of the authentic referent and concrete reality may make it seems as though one can only become immersed into fabricated depictions of the real or pre-existing. However, according to Rigby and Ryan, humans operate under the notion of certain “schemas,” which organize information based on past experience or preconceived notions. Schemas are the reason people know how to behave in a restaurant they’ve never visited before. They can even apply this learned behavior to fictional objects or worlds. Various forms of media have conditioned certain schemas into popular culture—everyone knows what a vampire is and how it has to behave—so much so that, even when fictional things deviate from our preconceptions of them, we perceive them as fake (a vampire who does not drink blood is not an “authentic” vampire).

There are dozens of fictional settings and environments that have never existed but because of certain “schemas” from fiction and pop culture, we have become conditioned to expect certain things from them. If you were asked to picture a post-apocalyptic setting you would most likely imagine various shades of brown, dusty environments, abandoned cars, and ruined buildings. A dystopian future? Strong pristine Modernist or Brutalist architecture and urban landscapes without a blade of grass out of place.

it is necessary to disregard the real world

Not only do schemas allow us to ascribe characteristics to fictional things, but they can warp our sense of true reality, making us believe in a fictional reality that has never actually existed. For example, most people imagine gladiator fights as gruesome and bloody battles to the death, but in reality, losing gladiators rarely died in the arena and often fought in front of crowds with wooden swords. This truth, however, has not commonly been told, and Hollywood has conditioned contemporary audiences to a level of bloodshed in its depictions of gladiatorial combat that would seem fake to actual Roman audiences that enjoyed the show. This is all to say that VR must acknowledge and react to these schemas. It must know what audiences expect and provide them with “authentic” depictions of their environments and the objects in them.

More so than painting, photography, or videogames, virtual reality necessitates immersion. If one is not immersed, then there is no “reality,” only a very obvious representation of a virtual environment. As Fried and Barthes make clear, virtual environments need to look the part, they need to appeal to as many senses as possible and depict a reality that persuades the user to suspend their disbelief. And so, for virtual reality to succeed, it does not need to replicate reality, it needs only to create a reality. One which is constructed through a harmony of representation and participation and conforms to our preconceived schemas.

As Barthes notes, reality effects work to eliminate a competing sense of reality. In fact, to become immersed in a virtual reality it is necessary to disregard the real world. While this may seem foolish, it is already far more common than we would like to admit. How many of us have ignored a phone call, text message, or even a direct conversation because we were so absorbed in a movie, TV show, or videogame? The very act of silencing your cell phone when you enter a movie theater is an example of willingly disregarding reality in favor of fiction.

VR, more so than any other medium, necessitates a disregard for reality because of its apparatus. While it is easy to ignore the real world while staring at a TV, it is even easier, if not necessary to do so in VR because one must become absorbed not only in the virtual but the physical as well. VR requires you to wear hardware that is, more than any other medium, designed to immerse you in an experience so wholly that you’re completely cut off from a competing sense of reality in the real world.

While immersive experiences are sought after by developers and users alike, the potential problems they present can be a cause for concern. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people become so immersed in VR that they begin to neglect real world issues. Movies like The Matrix (1999), Surrogates (2009), and Avatar (2009) all confront the phenomenon of being more immersed in a virtual reality than a real one. In fact, even Elon Musk believes in the possibility that this is already the case. While VR is far from ubiquitous at this point it is only a matter of time before experiences are honed, graphical fidelity is increased, and hardware is easily accessible. Confronted with this seemingly inevitable truth, it is worth asking ourselves if VR is something we truly want to pursue.


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