Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What is Immersion and does VR own it?

"Virtual Reality is great because it's so immersive." A common tagline nowadays that grates my ears every time I hear it. It implies that Virtual Reality, or VR, has some kind of special hold on the idea of Immersion. Some people have backed away from this claim recently, offered the more palatable claims of "a sense of presence," but having just walked out of the 2017 Games For Change day on VR, I can say immersion is still going strong.

I have two issues with this phrase- first, it's unclear that VR is actually all that immersive in the first place. I know we are still in the early days of the technology, but there's precious few examples of compelling immersion so far. It's very easy to be broken out of a virtual world by tripping over a cord, or looking down and not seeing your body. That being said, there are a few experiences that have been quite compelling- Invasion by Baobab sticks out as one of my favorites so far. But what's notable about this one example is that the immersion comes more from the story than from the technology. It's unclear that I'm immersed because I have a headset on vs being immersed because Baobab contains good writers on staff. And actually, the fact that so few truly immersive experiences exist on VR offers evidence for the latter.

Which brings me to my second issue. Let's accept that VR can be immersive, and that as time progresses, VR experiences will become progressively better and therefore more immersive. Here's a question for that future scenario- does VR have any kind of special ownership over the idea of immersion? Or put another way, are VR experiences uniquely immersive in some way?

I've already hinted in my first answer that I don't think VR has a unique stranglehold on immersion- even when we have immersive VR experiences, the story itself creates the immersion more than the technology. But additionally, VR is far from the only medium in which we can tell compelling stories- books of course being one of the best, oldest examples.

Of course this may not be totally fair- for anyone who has put on a VR headset, it's clear that a VR story is definitely different from a book story, or even a movie story or game story. But I'd suggest that difference is mostly sensory, not cognitive. Let me explain.

Let's introduce the idea of two kinds of immersion- "sensory immersion" and "cognitive immersion." Sensory immersion is the amount that your senses are engaged in an experience. We can rate different forms of media on a sensory immersion scale. Books are probably lowest, as they only engage our visual senses in a light way. Audiobooks or podcasts are also on the low end, in that they only engage our hearing. Movies might be a step higher, as they engage both sight in a more complete way than books and hearing as well. Games would be even higher, offering sight, sound and having some kind of touch interaction. VR would then be the highest, featuring an extremely strong visual and audio immersion (localized sound is to stereo sound what moving pictures are to words on a page), as well as a stronger sense of kinesthetic immersion (moving hands and arms is more powerful than scrolling a mouse or joystick). So, in the terms of sensory immersion, yes, VR is special.

But how about cognitive immersion? This is the extent to which your mind and imagination are absorbed in an activity. It has parallels with the state of Flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In game design theory, this kind of cognitive immersion is well-studied and can be created by employing either narratology (telling good stories) or ludology (having playful mechanics). At which point, we can ask a few questions:

Do forms of media besides VR achieve high levels of cognitive immersion? Absolutely yes. Undeniably, we have book worms, hardcore gamers, and movie-philes because there is something inherently compelling about experiences in these forms of media.

Can VR achieve high levels of cognitive immersion? Umm, maybe? It's unclear to me- I've yet to be absorbed in a VR experience to the same level that I'm absorbed in a good book or TV show. And it's not actually clear to me that VR can even be as cognitively immersive as a book- I have a theory that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of sensory stimulation that an experience gives you, and the amount you can be cognitively immersed in the experience. Basically, because books specifically leave more of the story open to your imagination, they inherently engage more of your mind in the story and are more cognitively immersive.

But VR should make people more able to be immersed in a virtual world, and forget about the world around them, right? So VR does offer some kind of unique cognitive immersion into a new world, right? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that I've been quite immersed in plenty of flat screen games, even going back to the 8-bit variety. I can't say that when I played Metroid or Castlevania or Final Fantasy that I was all that aware of the world outside the 1.5 square feet of screen that I was playing on. I'm not sure I needed to physically block out the world around me with a headset in order to be mentally absorbed in a different world.

So, why are we still saying VR has a special hold on immersion? That's the question I've been stuck on lately. I think we may have a tendency to become overly concerned with the sensory aspects of an experience, and overlook the more subtle, psychological aspects of an experience. We are so obsessed with the great capacity for VR to engage our senses that we ignore it's potential inability to deeply engage our minds.

Of course I'm happy to be convinced otherwise, but just so that we're clear, here's where the bar is at: make a VR experience that is more cognitively immersive than a good book, and then you can start to claim that VR has special ownership over immersion.