Trends and Futures

Day 2: What constitutes a VR Experience? (Part 1)

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?

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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)

The Body VR – a tour through the human body.

Migraine, people experiencing what it is like to suffer from migraines.

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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. 

8:46 EMOTIONAL Educational Virtual Reality Experience 9/11/2001 Attacks on the World Trade Centre


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 Behavior54, 170-179.

Pace, S. (2004). A grounded theory of the flow experiences of Web users. International journal of human-computer studies60(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 Interaction25(2), 107-133.

16 thoughts on “Day 2: What constitutes a VR Experience? (Part 1)

  1. Why do you think they seem to be so engaged?
    RE: I think they are human reacting to the virtual scenarios well. Like watching 3-D movies, we would make moves to avoid being hit by a flying ball towards our faces. We may get emotional by what we see, what we hear, and what we feel. VR is powerful collecting all these mediums like magicians as we know the scenarios are not real but we are still into them because they seems “real”. Although some of cases might be overacting a little (maybe for commercialisation purposes), there were human-VR interactions. Now You See Me!

    1. The “seems” real is an interesting notion, – what makes something seem real? …is the technical affordances of VR? is it the activity, the story, the narrative, or the task in the VR environment? is it both? is it something else?

  2. Why do you think they seem to be so engaged?
    I think people are so engaged because their imagination is entwined with the VR to the extent that it somehow feels real. It’s like crying over a book or film, or jumping/screaming at a scary part in a movie. We know it’s not real, but we still experience the emotions as if it is…

    Have you ever tried a VR experience – did it feel “real”? What was it about the experience that engaged you?
    I haven’t tried VR yet.

    If you have not experienced VR are you excited to try it?
    Totally excited to try it!!

    1. Hi Angela,

      I like your comparisons to how we bring that imaginative side of our brains into reading a book or watching a film so that we still experience the emotions in those. I have been to the IMAX in Sydney a number of times to see 3D movies and this adds a whole other dimension because of the massive size and 3D combination, you do feel as though you are in the movie to a certain extent. I found myself reaching out to catch drops of water that looked like they were coming out of the screen.

      I have also had a go at VR , an ocean one, and this again is a completely different experience, even if the graphics might be a bit short of reality, the sense of motion and movement and being able to interact with objects is pretty amazing. You are actually placed and surrounded by the VR world which gives you this sense of being in the space you are viewing.

    2. Angela, this was my thought exactly regarding the engagement of the user. While the VR seems more immersive thanks to the stereoscopic vision provided, I believe it’s more about the emotional investment/imagination of the user. People jump in normal old console-based video games, because they’re totally focused on what they’re doing, and people laugh or cry in movies due to their empathy with particular characters or a personal connection.

      I was totally intrigued by the migraine video, however, being able to recreate a symptom so that others can quite literally see what you’re seeing is a fascinating application, and I can see potential use for diagnostic purposes…

      Unfortunately I haven’t tried a VR experience myself, and won’t get to it this Friday!

      1. The emotional investment is indeed the awesome potential of VR but it appears from the research experiments, being done in places like MIT, it is the unique combination of the technical capacities of VR that are lending themselves to a willingness by people to be invested emotionally in VR experiences. While the technical aspects of VR create immersion, presence – “the feeling of really being there” – is a psychological state. This state is essentially the personal meaning we attribute to the experience. However, it appears if you diminish aspects of immersion in VR you are likely to effect the level of presence.

  3. I’ve only really experienced VR for gaming, and while that was fun I’d really like to experience VR in a more educational setting. Perhaps experiencing some of those educational simulation among the ideas mentioned yesterday.
    I’m also excited to experience more VR gaming I’ve only had very limited sessions experiencing VR and very much keen for more. I think more exposure to the technology will allow me to think more creatively about its potential both in the classroom, and as a gaming device.

  4. # Why do you think they seem to be so engaged?

    It’s difficult to know, having not experienced it myself. Clearly those participating can’t really believe that the situations they are placed in are real, but the experiences probably don’t need to be a indistinguishable from reality, just immersive enough to suspend disbelief. Part of it may be due to the novelty, just like the (possibly apocryphal) reaction to L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (

    The video about migraines was an interesting application, and one that I hadn’t thought of. I wonder if there are any ethical issues in presenting the experience as “real” when the experience itself is produced to promote a migraine drug. What are the ethics of depicting a particular version of “reality” for the purpose of selling something? Does the added immersion make this different to other marketing gimmicks?

    # If you have not experienced VR are you excited to try it?

    I’ve never tried true VR before, though would certainly be interested to do so.

  5. * Why do you think they seem to be so engaged?

    Stereoscopic vision and audio is provided, slaved to the person’s head position. In the case of the Apollo 11 mission, and the shark attack, the computer graphics did not look very realistic to me. I wonder if the user’s enthusiasm (which sounded fake) was because they were getting paid to promote the product.

    * Have you ever tried a VR experience – did it feel “real”? Real enough to genuinely engage you some virtual task?

    Yes. But I don’t work in an applicable area.

    * What was it about the experience that engaged you?

    The sense of perspective was engaging: being able to see objects in the distance. However, the effect was diminished due to the difficulty of moving and manipulating objects. Also I found the headset claustrophobic and could not wear it for more than a couple of minutes.

    It should be noted that simulators for training purposes pre-date computer VR. The best known such simulators are for pilot training. Perhaps the most sophisticated such experience which the general public has access to are the Boeing 737 flight simulators at places like Jet Flight Simulator Canberra.

    But I suggest the emphasis on gadgets is distracting from more general and important use of simulation for training. Many tasks now involve interacting via a computer interface, on a general purpose computer, or built into some other device. This interface can be driven from a simulation for training purposes. This could be as simple as sending the student synthetic text e-mail messages from a simulated client.

    * Join us for a hands-on session, Friday …

    Unfortunately I am not in Canberra most Fridays, so I miss the face-to-face bits of the coffee courses.

  6. Really interesting material today – even more than usual!

    Alison Landsberg (Prosthetic Memory, 2004) argued that mass cultural forms (cinema, television, etc.) could create a new form of public cultural memory (the “prosthetic memory”). By allowing the participant to recall events that they had not experienced in real life, this prosthetic memory had the capacity to transcend sympathy (feelings of sorrow for someone else, lit. sun+pathos, or “with-feeling”) and foster genuine empathy (the ability to share the feelings of others, lit. em+pathos or “in-feeling”). The empathy engendered by these prosthetic memories would then have the potential to increase “social responsibility and political alliances that transcend the essentialism and ethnic particularism of contemporary identity politics”.

    If TV and movies are immersive experiences, the potential for VR to form prosthetic memories is even more intense, hence the reactions of the people in these videos.

  7. Agree Chris.

    In fact I think Landsberg in describing a person that “does not simply apprehend a historical narrative but takes on a more personal, deeply felt memory of a past even through which he or she did not live. The resulting prosthetic memory has the ability to shape that person’s subjectivity and politics” points to the underlying philosophical issues alluded to in today’s material. The blurring between direct experience and observed experience as a means of shaping one’s sense of self is going to be interesting to say the least. If we take a certain sociological view, that all reality is socially constructed, how does the constructed VR visceral experiences (imbued in the values of those constructing these realities – the Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan thesis that technology is never neutral ) impact on who we think are there, and how we give meaning and construct our notions of history, society….?

  8. Glad you mentioned social constructivism. It has been in my thoughts since yesterday when the blog focused on reality. It’s hard to determine engagement by sat hung others, I think it’s only possible to truly understand it if you have tried it. The combination of visual and physical (such as the feeling of being dizzy or falling ) work to convince you that you are ‘present’

  9. I think it’s clear that VR can be extremely effective for packing a huge emotional punch. From that point of view, it could be useful in education when it is important that students really empathise with a situation.

    The shark attack was more obviously effective than the human body lesson – which may have been a bit dry. (It is hard to evaluate from the point of view of a spectator.) I guess the question is, how engaging would something like that actually be to kids, in comparison to a say a normal video? And I wonder if they would have more retention of the material?

  10. I’ve tried VR before, admittedly only in a gaming context. It did feel quite real and engaging. The combination of complete visual replacement and headphones isolated me from the outside world very effectively. The perspective vision has a very powerful effect but perhaps the key to the whole thing were the controllers which let me interact with the virtual world. Virtual hands were displayed in my visual field and the motion of them/the controllers matched my proprioception which had such a strong effect on the immersion. I found my engagement so strongly dependent on the smooth and accurate tracking of those controllers though.

  11. I have used VR once. It was a futuristic view of air travel in a museum exhibit. The idea was that you get to experience something else while sitting on a long-haul plane. I got to chill on the beach and listen to live music at a French restaurant. The novelty of it was quite exciting, but it got boring pretty quickly, so I don’t see myself doing this for 15 hours on a flight to the US. I think the novelty is one of the things that made it engaging for the people in the Youtube videos, but VR is an overkill for some of the experiences. For example, a film would do just fine for the Human body travel. Something like the migraines and the 9/11 experiences are better suited for VR as you become more invested.

  12. I think the effect of VR to a person and the level of engagement will vary. People like me who are exposed to gaming and video game cinematic trailers will be harder to engage. For the migraine VR, the emotional factor and the fact that they were experiencing it “in behalf of a loved one” I think added to the engagement. The 9/11 was interesting for me because despite the very basic graphics, it was effective in teaching empathy and it had a story. In this instance, I think the story element helped in creating a more vivid experience and added to the empathy.

    I have experienced VR several times but I have not had a “perfect” experience due to factors such as:
    – the VR headset did not fit my head snugly and I could see my feet when I looked down
    – smelly VR headsets
    – crappy headphones or speakers or wherever the sound is coming from
    – limited space and area to do the VR activity (if I’m doing tennis in the VR give me space for my forehand!)
    – awfully bad graphics
    Which makes me think that it is not just the graphics and the sound but all these other factors combined that make a truly engaging VR experience.

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