VR and immersion

It is April 2016, Virtual Reality (VR) seems to have finally arrived. It has been a long exciting road, pure fun I believe. We reached the consumer market, all of us together, enthusiasts, evangelists, developers, backers, all of us.


It is a new paradigm for entertainment, education, industry in general. The founding stones have settled and now the journey of discovery truly begins. Content is king and it will morph in surprising, unexpected ways. And I cannot wait.


We have been given a huge responsibility as consumers and developers to help shape this emerging new reality. From input methods, to applicability of the medium the path is unclear and full of possibilities.


One of the first challenges ahead, present in this first VR generation seems to be the problem of artificial locomotion. The technology arriving at our doors allows for seamless tracking and movement within the boundaries of our real physical space. But we want to explore, we want to expand our boundaries, roam free. And it is this freedom that we need to enable when developing new locomotion systems.


The locomotion options are out there, and this article is not for discussing them. There is a lot of discussion about whether these options detract from immersion. I want to talk about immersion.


Isn’t VR designed specifically with one objective in mind? Enhancing immersion?


We have enjoyed storytelling and playing since the beginnings of social interactions. First were word of mouth stories, social games. This developed into tabletop games, sports, books, etc. Last century brought the radio, TV, computer games, digital entertainment. Please notice that all of these have not gone anywhere. People still love reading, playings sports, watching movies. VR is not going to take that away. But we are back to the question, isn’t VR designed to enhance immersion? Well yes, and no.


Let me explain.


We tend to blur the meaning of immersion when in the context of VR. Immersion is the deep mental involvement in something, whether it is an experience, a game or simply a course. Immersion is achieved already at the level of our imagination, you can close your eyes and feel immersed. Hear a story and you will get goosebumps, read a book and time will slow down, watch a movie and feel part of the narrative. Immersion depends first on your own imagination and secondly (but importantly) on the narrative, engaging quality of the content , whatever the medium is. I am sure all of us agree that the medium (TV, console games, VR…) can greatly enhance the immersion we feel by blending the content with our natural sensory receptors. The closer to our natural interactions (e.g. simply turning your head to look around) the easier is for us to feel immersed in something. But let’s not forget that it depends on the content and our own imagination. I can point at horrible VR experiences with no artificial locomotion (or sickness involved) where the level of immersion I felt cannot even come close to reading a good book (e.g. “Contact” by Carl Sagan).


There is another element to VR that I see people confusing everyday with immersion: Presence. This s a relatively new concept to us. It is novel to VR and it makes sense that we misconceive its meaning. It is not disconnected from immersion, I will say that. But it is slightly different. Presence facilitates immersion, not the other way around, it goes only in one direction. Presence is the ultimate connection with our innate senses. When feeling presence there is no longer a barrier between you and the medium. There is no medium. It is however a fleeting feeling. Very soon you realize you have no body, your hands aren’t there, you cannot roam freely, there is no wind, etc. But we are getting there, the presence inducing experiences are becoming more common today. The technology has allowed us to feel it. Hundreds of thousands of people can now feel they are somewhere else, feel artificially induced presence, for the first time in human history .


And we come to the point I wanted to make from the beginning. When talking about different locomotion techniques people seem to confuse concepts, argue that this system and that technique break immersion. They don’t. Immersion can be retained in any of the locomotion systems available, any of them. Presence as well, they depend on the content, the presentation, the artistic and narrative quality. When developing a new locomotion system for VR there is a huge amount of work, first to make it efficient, second to integrate it effectively within the wolrd, to retain Presence and Immersion. Most of the time it seems developers forget the second part. It is understandable, but we should refocus because it makes a huge difference. Appropriate narrative techniques and planning allows one to maintain presence and immersion within a specific locomotion scheme.


The effectivity of these however cannot be judged from a video, or a description, it has to be experienced. And there I don’t have much advice yet. Hopefully the mass adoption of VR will make this a very easy step. However I am convinced that we, together, will choose the best methods for locomotion. The best, most effective ones will stay, and evolve as technology evolves. I am not sure if a standard for artifical locomotion will be established any time soon. We are experiencing a rapidly evolving VR era. How fast we will reach the point when the technology improves infinitesimaly over reasonable periods of time? For example smartphones seem to evolve at a fast pace (still?). The user interactions with smartphones are a good example I believe, so I expect several years to pass before we reach that point.

It is a very exciting time to be alive 🙂