Immersion, immediacy and augmented reality

I’ve been writing a bit more about the differences between immediacy and immersion and why they’re not the same, and thought that this applies to the idea of augmented reality as well as virtual reality. To recap: One of the definitions of presence I take issue with is that it can be described as “the perception of non-mediation”, a definition that is sometimes applied to the phrase immediacy as if these are the same things. They’re linked, but there are important differences. The idea of immediacy is that if we are completely unaware that there is a technology between us and the environment, then we will be completely immersed. Actually, though, if you reflect on your experiences of virtual environments it’s evident they are different things – there’s definitely no immediacy, but there is immersion – well one sort of immersion.

What I should have said last time I talked about this is that a helpful distinction is the one made by Lombard and Ditton in that paper I keep quoting, where they talk about psychological immersion, which is what I’ve been talking about as immersion up to now, and perceptual immersion, which is both immediacy (there is no interface) and the extent to which the technology dominates our senses (its immersiveness).

The stuff that gets between – the mediations we perceive – sometimes can detract from a feeling of psychological immersion, but sometimes can enhance it. I mentioned before that wayfinding via maps on the screen can enable the user to feel more part of the environment despite the fact that they are a visible layer between the viewer and the environment. Another example is when exploring the theatres in Theatron (a virtual worlds project I evaluated which recreated about 20 historical theatres in Second Life http://cms.cch.kcl.ac.uk/theatron/) the paradata available to students made sense of the space for them, and provided additional context. The ability of the user of technology to adapt to technology, to develop an unconscious competency at sense-making using these pop-up boxes and clickable menus means that, once accustomed to them, although perceived, the interface is not intrusive, it simply becomes another sense through which the virtual is perceived.

But now with the advent of augmented reality, then the affordances of the virtual world are being imported to the physical. Through the use of devices such as Google Glass, the physical world will no longer be interfaceless. Like the virtual worlds viewers, although intrusive at first, the heads up displays and available paradata will become second nature as we adapt to their use. The cultural context and additional information around us can be added to historical sites, and the added level of significance of artefacts in that form the signifying system in semiotic social spaces such as cathedrals (I always need someone who isn’t an atheist to explain what’s going on in them to me). [And if you don’t know what semiotic social spaces are, read Gee, or better yet, the book by Iryna and me when it comes out, I don’t mean our book is better, it’s just better for us since we probably need the royalties more than Gee does].

Rather than then being alienating spaces in which information is not communicated and lack of knowledge of boundary objects preclude full understanding of the space, the paradata added via augmented reality act as boundary spanners to full participation in the space. [OK and now I’m quoting Wenger – oh maybe our book is better because it mashes up two different theories]. Therefore, in the same way that accompanying interfaces can help make the virtual world more psychologically immersive, augmented reality has the potential to make the physical world more psychologically immersive. By providing us with paradata about our surroundings we can become more part of them, not less, psychological immersion is increased though immediacy is decreased.

That’s what i’m claiming anyway. Does that sound plausible though?

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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