In virtual-reality speak, ‘immersion’ can mean a number of different things. Ever taken a look at the Matrix, and thought about what it might mean for us? Rene Descartes was one of the first to ask this question – if we’re totally ‘immersed’ in an environment where all sense stimuli are artificially produced and fed to us, how could we distinguish that environment from external reality?
Immersion is a critical concept in game design, and it comes in four main flavors. In this article, we’re going to take a look at what those are, and what we might need to take virtual reality from being an emergent technology to on-the-shelves.
If ever we have a boring task to complete – say, photocopying documents or washing up – our goal system will develop a series of short- and long- term focuses for our attention. In VR-speak, what you’re engaging with there is ‘strategic immersion’ – the disregard of present reality for a hypothetical one in the future. It’s a weird concept – if I’m thinking about all the errands I have to run today, I’m gradually becoming immersed in a goal-based scenario that’s pretty independent of reality. Sure, I can be woken out of it – say, by a sudden event like a phone call or alarm – but for a potentially extended period of time I’ll be immersed in my own little world. So, strategic immersion – a situation where a player or subject is given to planning in the future, such that small alterations of defects in their present experience go unnoticed.
Try getting my brother off Call of Duty once he’s in a multiplayer match. The kind of immersion he’s experiencing – the effecting of some high-level skill-set, say, or repetitive and simple ‘in-the-moment’ actions – is known in the biz as ‘tactical immersion’. Again, your immersed brain will be a bit more forgiving of drawbacks or defects in the immediate environment, as it will be to a greater extent focused on completing a task to the right degree.
Why do graphics matter so much in modern games? A lot of this is to do with spatial immersion. If the differences between our typically experienced world and a VR-simulated one are minimized, we can feel that we are ‘there’ to a greater extent – our belief can be suspended considerably. If the TVs or computer screens sitting in the corner of your room looked pixellated and low-res, you might begin to suspect that something is up.
This is probably the trickiest beast to tackle in VR. Not only does good narrative immersion require an effective and enticing storyline in to which the player is inescapably drawn, but it also requires a degree of narrative flexibility that simply isn’t available to VR designers currently. No matter how well they might design your room when you wake up, give you a similar set of short- and long- term goals as you might normally pursue in the morning and supply the right tactile senses to immerse you in performing them, if your first chat of the day with a partner gives you a list of preset responses in a dialogue box the narrative immersion is broken.
So, what do we need to happen before we can make virtual reality more than just a hypothetical concept? Specifically, we need to get better at directly stimulating targeted bits of our central nervous system, so we can effectively simulate spatial immersion. Our digital effects need to improve for the same reason. In addition, we’re going to need much more gifted artificial intelligence to be able to maintain sophisticated and subtle narratives. It’s still a dream for the moment – but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.