Defining and Measuring Immersion for VR
Broadly, immersion is understood and defined in terms of physical and emotional engagement in a certain medium or environment. It describes the extent to which a creation can move an audience into itself. What I mean by this, is that we call an experience immersive when we feel truly entranced in another world and fully engaged in the narrative being produced. However, immersion is a term that often goes unmeasured and unquantified and therefore remains to an extent, ambiguous.
The interest in virtual reality (VR) as a technological innovation is rooted in the belief that VR offers enhanced levels of immersion through digital spaces. However, the ambiguity and difficulty of defining what immersion is disrupts our understanding of virtual reality and what the term ‘VR’ might encompass. By defining VR in terms of reaching a new benchmark of immersion, we need to ask what exactly is the threshold to qualify an experience or technology as virtual reality. This is not a mere question of semantics. As I have discussed in past posts, virtual reality has vast implications on future innovation, how we interact in digital spaces and several other issues. Analyses and assertions in relation to VR that attempt to say “VR causes x” or “VR can be used for y” will have little applicability until we have fully determined the answer to ‘what constitutes VR?’. To do that, we must begin developing a working definition of immersion and learn how to quantify and qualify its existence in our technologies.
Such an undertaking should begin with an investigation of where and how we currently use the term immersion. Language Immersion as an instructional method and Cultural Immersion as an experience of traveling are helpful cases. Language Immersion programs work to place individuals in environments in which they do not use their primary language and are forced to engage in the use of a foreign language. Cultural Immersion accomplishes similar measures but with cultural and lifestyle differences. Both cases are defined by their ability to remove the individual from their usual experience and engage them in a different experience. The weight of this lies in the separation of removing the usual and introducing the different as two unique components. A language immersion program does not just put the individual in an experience where a foreign language is in primary use (the introduction of the different), but also demands that the individual refrain from using their native language during the experience (the removal of the usual). This understanding suggests that immersion is weakened when it simply introduces new engagements without removing old ones.
The two-component principle with which we understand language immersion and cultural immersion should guide our understanding of immersion in terms of technology and virtual reality. Successful production of virtual reality experiences will depend on physical creations such as head mounted displays that limit our sensory engagement to the VR experience. We can begin to think of ways to quantify and measure this such as the number of senses that are being controlled and the percent of their activity which is focused into the VR experience. The second component of introducing new experiences has been done through several technologies – screens for sight, headphones for hearing, and controllers for touch. Again, we can begin to think of ways to quantify the success of this component by the number of senses being engaged and the extent to which they engage in a way that mimics the way in which our senses engage with non-virtual environments.
Defining immersion will not be a simple task and will always remain somewhat vague. Building blocks such as defining the various human sensory perceptions is not a fully realized endeavor. Further, concepts such as avatars, graphical interfaces, and photorealism also have implications which must be addressed. Understanding immersion requires consideration of dozens of factors which we are only beginning to understand, but it is an exciting prospect to make progress.