Sunday, 25 August 2013

Immersion matters

Here's my August column for AVENUE magazine.

Much ado is currently being made about the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset currently under development and being fitted out for Second Life®. Or rather, SL is currently being fitted out for it, with a Rift-enabled version of the viewer scheduled for public release in late summer. There have been significant steps forward in SL visuals in recent months, what with the switchover to server-side avatar rendering promising to assign blurry avatars to history, and the recent introduction of ‘New Materials’ (my ballpark reading of which is ‘advanced bump-mapping’) enabling more realistic surface textures. Factor in the buzz surrounding the Rift and there’s this faint feeling of stars lining up for a possible second age of SL. I’m not entirely sure how SL will work inside the Rift (I don’t know, for example, how typing will be done), though it’s easy to see the attraction of this new layer to SL’s secret ingredient: immersion.

Immersion is already the thing that, for the vast majority of us, makes SL work. Somehow or another, when we see our avatar in a house or on a beach or in a club or in a shop, there’s a part of our mind which treats these digital constructions as though they’re actual three dimensional spaces which we really are occupying. Our awareness of our real life surroundings becomes reduced and our attention becomes focused on the objects and people surrounding our virtual representative.

What’s perhaps most astonishing about metaverse immersion, however, is that it doesn’t appear to require especially sophisticated visuals. Although we might always imagine a more graphically beautiful SL to be a better experience than that which we are currently enjoying, when I look back on my own sense of immersion in SL it’s not at all the case that it has increased only as a result of improvements to the graphical environment. Some of my fondest memories in SL, in fact, are of locations constructed from prims and textures which, by today’s SL standards, really wouldn’t drop any jaws in aesthetic appreciation. The town centre performance area in Cookie, for example, is a build so basic it consists to this day of just a simple stage and a collection of single prim seats, yet it’s still one of the most real places that exists in my SL.

A couple of weeks or so after joining SL, I was exploring the sims surrounding my birthplace region of Bear and came across an art gallery. What surprised me about this visit was the feeling later on that day that I’d actually visited an art gallery rather than just viewed a representation of one (as we might by looking at pictures in a book or seeing a gallery on the television). Thinking back on it now, I realise a number of important things happened during that visit. Firstly, since my camming skills were still pretty basic back then, I examined paintings on display just by walking up to them. In other words, the behaviour of my avatar mimicked actual ‘art gallery behaviour’. Secondly, I had my very first SL conversation there with another visitor, at least a few lines of which were about the exhibits. In other words, I had a conversation with someone that was appropriate to the context of the setting.

It occurs to me now that this occurrence encapsulated some of the vital component parts of immersion in SL. First of all, places with a specific function increase immersion. The graphical complexity of these places isn’t as important as the function itself, though it would be disingenuous to suggest it adds no meaningful embellishment whatsoever. Second, functional places where other people act in a contextually appropriate manner increase immersion. If other people in an SL gallery or an SL cafĂ© or an SL poetry venue behave in the broadly defined manner that one might expect others to behave in such places, they start to become more real. To put it another way, people ‘buying in’ to the function of a place makes it work.

For example, kitchens. People creating in SL virtual homes that are essentially the RL house of their dreams is one of the things I found perplexing in my first few months in the metaverse. What on Earth, I asked myself, was the point in creating a kitchen or a bathroom in SL?  What was the point in having virtual cupboards that could store no objects and virtual shelving that could hold no books? Initially, I ascribed this behaviour to an absence of imagination. Later, it occurred to me that, in building houses, residents were essentially creating a set on which they could enact their social interaction. In building a kitchen, then, they were providing themselves with a space where spontaneous, informal conversation might take place. It had function. Knowing that a certain space was intended to be a kitchen influenced the sort of behaviours that happened there.

In the creation of familiar places, what we seem to be doing is building areas that allow us to import into SL our RL patterns of social interaction. Of course, this is a far from perfect thing – especially if we interact with friends from different cultures, where such things as kitchens might have subtly different associations – but it’s enough of a hook to make talking with someone in a kitchen or a bedroom or a library feel qualitatively different from talking to them in an open field or – for that matter – talking to them in a Facebook chat box. Places in SL provide an unspoken context to our interactions.

The third component part of immersion to be found in my art gallery example concerns the movement of our own avatars, a dimension so subtle it includes all the things we’re not doing as much as it does the things that we are. In real life, for example, I find dancing at parties a vastly undignified act which I avoid at all costs. To see Huck ‘getting down’ at a club or event is to see a stranger that I don’t associate myself with. To see him standing at the periphery, however – the awkward attendee whom everyone suspects is secretly counting the minutes until it’s socially acceptable to leave – is to see myself. It resonates.

Immersion isn’t, of course, only about finding SL comfort zones that echo RL habits; it’s also about exploring new ways of being. I might not like the idea of dancing at clubs, but what better place to become a little more comfortable with the idea than in SL, where I don’t have to worry about my rubbish dancing skills, the possibility of knocking into someone, my perspiration levels and the question of if my jacket has been stolen? Whether or not this can ultimately impact on my ability to dance in RL is another question – perhaps that gap is still too large to bridge with current technology – but perhaps the most important issue is less the transference of SL behaviours into RL and more the way that we think about them. I might previously have rationalised my non-dancing behaviour with a belief such as ‘All people who dance are idiots’; it will be a bit harder for me to hold on to such a view if I become a regular groover at SL parties.

That said, the current research interest into mirror neurons – recently identified cells in the brain which activate on seeing human movements performed as though we have performed them ourselves – might have a great deal to teach us in the near future about how SL and RL movement interrelate. An article this year in New World Notes ( told the story of Fran, a senior citizen suffering from Parkinson’s disease who has experienced an improvement in her movement since she started using SL. “As I watched [my avatar doing Tai Chi],” Fran reported, “I could actually feel the movements within my body as if I were actually doing tai chi in my physical life […] For a year I have sat and slept in a motorized lounge chair that brings me to a standing position when I push a button. […] Now, I can go from a sitting to standing position without even using my arms to push against the arm rests.” Claims like this should always be treated with caution until research has had a chance to explore them systematically – indeed, the researchers looking at Fran’s case are keen to highlight her own remarkable qualities as a person in terms of the role they might have played in this improvement; as an indication of how much there is yet to learn about the potential impact of immersion in virtual worlds, however, the story has enormous merit. The Oculus Rift, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily denote a step forward for people like Fran if it imposes a first person perspective (in the manner of ‘mouselook’ on current viewers): if you can’t see clearly your own body movement, mirror neurons will presumably have less to tune in to.

I still walk up to exhibits in art galleries, even though I could easily cam everything from one spot. That said, if I visited a gallery and there was no-one else there, I might well be tempted to cam. When others are present, I am pushed towards context-appropriate behaviour. A fourth component of immersion, therefore, might be the knowledge that others can see and judge us, activating our responses to being in the company of others (whatever they might be). Human beings are ultimately social creatures: it is to the ways that technology facilitates and frames our interactions that we should look when discussing immersion, not just the visual appeal.

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