By Dr Glen O’Grady, Frederick Chew and Craig Gall, Australian National University
What constitutes a VR Experience?
Before we jump into exploring what constitutes a virtual reality (VR) experience, let’s briefly explore some underpinning philosophical questions.
In the popular movie “Inception” the protagonist manipulates a person’s thinking through dreams, he does this by convincing them their dreams are their reality, invoking Descartes’ dilemma: do really know that we are not dreaming? In the Matrix movie Morpheus asks: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
“What is real” as opposed to “not real” is a fundamental question for those trying to design machines seeking to imitate or create (an alternate) reality.
Robert Nozick’s (1974) famous thought experiment described a machine that could simulate reality and gave the user happy and pleasurable experiences. These machine experiences seemed so real that it creates the dilemma of whether an individual would choose to be plugged into the machine—or experience the real world? (Experience Machine)
Another fundamental question underpinning VR is what makes undertaking a virtual reality experience worthwhile?
In addressing these questions it might be useful to consider what is a good analogy for a VR experience. David Voltz from CNet suggests that Virtual Reality is like a dream in as much as virtual reality blends visual immersion with auditory cues to create a vivid experience. These experiences while vivid, are not reality (the current graphics, glitches, and lack of total sensory experience bears this out) but all the same they may “feel” very real. Bertol in her 1977 book Designing digital space: an architect’s guide to virtual reality suggests that one of the most intriguing concepts of virtual reality is the ability to achieve a realistic simulation of worlds which are the product of the imagination. She cites examples of the way virtual worlds do not have to behave according to the laws of physics which rule over our physical world and how theories contradicting our common spatial experience (and common sense) are easily applied to a VR environment. Buildings do not have to respond to the laws of gravity or physical material characteristics; collisions can or cannot happen; you can walk through walls; the figure-ground relations can be inverted; you can be at two or more places at the same time. But no matter how different the VR may be from our physical reality it is still grounded in our spatial sensibilities of the physical world. The potential of VR is we can dream new spatial realities that can impact on how we makes sense of our physical reality.
Underpinning VR is the assumption that it is possible for our senses to be “fooled” by a medium that simulates reality, fooled into thinking something is real. Maybe not completely fooled but fooled enough that we consider the virtual as “real” enough that we are (willing to be) engaged in this space. Blascovich (2011) points out that the patterns of neurons that fire when one watches a three-dimensional digital re-creation of a supermodel, such as Giselle or Fabio, are very similar–if not identical–to those that fire in the actual presence of the models. Walking a tightrope over a chasm in virtual reality can be a terrifying ordeal even if the walker knows it’s virtual rather than physical. In other words in VR the brain often does not fully differentiate between virtual experiences and real ones.
What is it like to have a VR experience?
We invite you to watch one or two of the following videos that show people having a VR experience. Consider the way different individuals engage in the VR activity, noting in some instances the very heighten emotional states of the individuals.
Why do you think they seem to be so engaged? Post your thoughts in the forum
This is a video of a young man experiencing the launch of the Apollo 11 mission
VR Worlds Ocean Descent: Dive into the Deep (jump ahead to 7.50)
Warning: This next video is a VR experience of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. It is very controversial and has quite an impact on the person participating. We have included this video as it gives you a vastly different perspective of what happened at the World Trade Centre compared to reading articles, books or seeing normal video of what happened but if you think you will find it confronting or difficult to watch then please dont.
What makes VR potentially such a powerful experience?
In 1975, Csikszentmihalyi proposed the term flow, this term describes a state of absorption or engagement in an activity (Pace, 2004). It characterizes a psychological state of concentration, focus and elevated enjoyment during intrinsically interesting activities (Hamari, 2016). Researchers have looked at the concept of flow in the context of VR and have identified two key components that facilitate flow in VR experiences – immersion and presence (Qin 2009). Tommorrow we explore these concepts in some detail.
- Have you ever tried a VR experience – did it feel “real”? Real enough to genuinely engage you some virtual task?
- What was it about the experience that engaged you?
- If you have not experienced VR are you excited to try it?
Bertol, D., & Foell, D. (1997). Designing digital space: an architect’s guide to virtual reality. John Wiley & Sons.
Blascovich, J., & Bailenson, J. (2011). Infinite reality: Avatars, eternal life, new worlds, and the dawn of the virtual revolution. William Morrow & Co.
Hamari, J., Shernoff, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 170-179.
Pace, S. (2004). A grounded theory of the flow experiences of Web users. International journal of human-computer studies, 60(3), 327-363.
Qin, H., Patrick Rau, P. L., & Salvendy, G. (2009). Measuring player immersion in the computer game narrative. Intl. Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 25(2), 107-133. http://www.tandfonline.com.virtual.anu.edu.au/doi/abs/10.1080/10447310802546732