Immersion, presence and immersiveness

This post is prompted by a discussion I’ve been having in linkedin with many of the delegates from the Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds conference in Lisbon earlier this month. It’s extracted from the various posts I made, but also prompted by their comments, so thanks to them for the discussion.

The question was really about the role of immersion in general, and in virtual worlds in particular, and whether it’s different in different environments, and particularly what immersion is and how it differs from other forms of experience.

I think the problem with much of this is that we’re trying to explain experiences that aren’t necessarily ones we’re used to, in that the technology does provide new sorts of experiences. And that these things are defined differently by different authors, so we’re not always talking about the same thing.

For me, immersion is a very precise metaphorical term for that sense of feeling submerged in an experience. It’s like being immersed in water when you’re taking a bath. Making a certain set of technologies different because they’re so called immersive technologies is pointless as far as this is concerned, because any technology is immersive. You can lose yourself in a book, that’s becoming immersed in it. You can do the same in a play or a film. In those media it’s called the diegetic effect, the fictional world of the narrative becomes real just for the period that you’re part of it.

Is immersion the same as presence? I think it probably is. While you’re feeling immersed, you’re transported to that fictional world. There’s a paper by Sheridan MIT’s journal Presence in which he talks about the sense of actually being there when we experience these media. There’s a sense of departure from one reality and arrival at the other. We get in the flow of the text, of the narrative or whatever, but if something intrudes, someone talking in the cinema, or a cat jumping on your lap, then that connection with that fictional space is lost.

I rant about that a bit on a post in a previous blog. It’s in response to the BBC placing a trailer for a TV show over the top of the climax of Dr Who http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markchilds/entry/responses_to_nortongate/ worrying not just because it ruined the experience, but also because anyone who can do that obviously doesn’t get a large point of what art and entertainment are for, which is that sense of transportation and immersion.

Is immersion necessary for learning, or for engagement? On the whole, I don’t think it is. In fact some entertainment deliberately avoids immersion. Brecht called that Verfremsdungseffekt. I’m reading Midnight’s Children at the moment, it’s a good book and I’m enjoying it. But the frequent breaking of the author into the narrative, and the jumping from scenario to the next precludes that sense of flow, of being caught up with the story. The reader isn’t submerged in the same way. Actually that distant, sometimes critical reflective position is often referred to as engagement and there’s a great paper here on how that works in Grand Theft Auto http://www.jorisdormans.nl/article.php?ref=theworldisyours by moving between a sense of immersion and engagement, is perhaps how we get the most out of something. Experiencing both at once is supposedly possible too, a state called metaxis.

Two people can watch the same piece or experience the same technology and one can feel immersed and the other not. Ultimately immersion happens in your head, not on the screen. Technology has something to do with it though, but the problem with the idea of immersive technology is that it implies somehow that it creates that sense of immersion. It doesn’t but it can help. It’s more useful therefore to think of immersiveness as a series of technological factors that can contribute to immersion (resolution, frame rate, width of field, soundsurround, haptics, etc. the so-called depth and breadth of senses engaged) as objective measures, without being hung up on the issue that they don’t actually cause immersion.

I think one of the clarifications that can help is the difference between perceptual immersion and psychological immersion … this is in At the Heart of it All by Lombard and Ditton http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/lombard.html which together with Biocca’s The Cyborg’s Dilemma http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/biocca2.html is probably the most seminal article on this. Immersive technologies lead to perceptual immersion, but this might not necessary lead to psychological immersion. And psychological immersion can take place without recourse to messing with your perceptions. It depends on the individual. How it depends on the individual is one of the things I’m particularly interested in looking at. But more on that some other time.

Another thing that gets bundled into the same package as immersion is immediacy. Sometimes immersion is defined as the perception of non-mediation. I don’t think these are equivalent at all. Sure if you’re in an environment where you don’t notice the technology it can seem real (if technology ever gets that sophisticated) but actually the things that help mediate information can actually help you feel more immersed. An example: minimaps in Second Life. They pop up on screen, (so you’re aware of something between you and the virtual space) but once you’re accustomed to them, and incorporate them into the automatic way you interact with the world, they become extensions of your perception, they help you wayfind round the space, and so therefore add to the sense of immersion.

So we have three factors that are linked, but also have differences: immersion (=presence), immediacy (=non-mediation) and immersiveness (=realness, vividness).

I’m using the word presence for “being there” and I’m deliberately avoiding the word telepresence because that’s become an ambiguous word. Originally it was coined by Minsky to mean ability to act at a distance http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/Telepresence.html but was since expanded to mean anything at which you felt you were present at a remote location (like feeling a videoconference was actually a face-to-face meeting). Recent developments in technology have reappropriated the word to mean specifically technologies that enable you to act at a distance, not just experience being at a distance. For that I’m trying to get into using the phrase “distal presence” since that’s not ambiguous. But I just wish people would come up with a definition for a word, that’s different from their definition of a different word. And stick to it.

So if any technology can cause immersion, why get hung up on the more immersive technologies? Good question, but I’ve run out of space. Some other time.

Sheridan, T. (1992) Musings on telepresence and virtual presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 1 (1), 120 – 126

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