Virtual Reality and the Mirage of Immersion

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“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”—William Gibson, Neuromancer

As one of technology’s many pipe dreams, virtual reality has long been considered the herald to the age of cyberspace and immersive media. Romanticized by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, the concept of a lived-in experience and being “immersed” inside a virtual space has held the fantasy of many for decades since then. This was first capitalized in the early ‘90s resulting in the initial wave of VR devices like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, VFX-1 and Cybermaxx, which crashed and burned almost immediately under a wave of complaints claiming they caused headaches and nausea.

But the proponents of VR stood firm, as they continue to do so today, claiming that it’s only a matter of time before technology can catch up with the vision of virtual reality. For them, it is the question of when rather than if and how that matters when it comes to a future of “immersive media.”

While Oculus Rift leads the pack of second-wave VR devices, the upcoming Sony Morpheus with HTC and Valve’s Vive will also soon be joining Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear in a market that’s filled with a greater sense of optimism about VR. Instilled by improved technology in head-tracking and stereoscopic 3D, it may be easy to buy into the idea that the pipe dream of VR and immersion might become a reality soon. However, the critical issues that remain fundamental to VR, the state it currently exists in and its relation to immersion remain largely unaddressed.

A concept central to VR is about “presence,” of its attempts to induce the feeling as if you’re “there”, inside the virtual space of the game. This has always been a primary concern in the field of VR technology and most efforts in R&D departments are channelled towards addressing this. Motion blurs and delays in the latency caused by head-tracking are some of the many concerns that have been tackled by VR manufacturers over the past decade. While such a focus helps increase accessibility of the device by reducing occurrences of headaches and nausea among people, it primarily serves as a foundation of what makes VR unique in the first place, that feeling of being inside the screen.

The concept of presence is used to encapsulate the feeling of supplying your senses with adequate audiovisual stimuli to encourage your brain to think and believe you are inside the simulated environment of the game. However, our VR-induced perception comes in direct conflict with the fact we exist physically in our own body. This tension between presence and embodiment forms the core issue that plagues VR on a level that goes well beyond technology. If VR wants to achieve its vision of immersive media and cyberspace, then it will have to conjure up stimuli that’s so strong and complete that it will overpower our sense of physical existence.

However, before it can attempt to resolve the inherent tension with embodiment, VR has more immediate issues that plague it on a more basic level.

For a technology that chases after the mythical “total immersion,” VR games are awfully content with traditional methods of interaction, whether it is handheld controllers or keyboard and mouse.

For a medium that’s fundamentally about action, perception in gaming will always be overruled by embodiment and our sense of physical self which operates the controller. Gaming in VR has been stuck on two fronts. It is firstly stuck in a rut of games from a first-person perspective that’s needed to utilize its stereoscopic 3D perspective, but that also limits its variety in just what kind of experiences can be had.

More importantly, it is also stuck using tried and tested controllers as main sources of input, with rare forays into gesture control involving custom LeapMotion mounts for Oculus Rift. Developers of VR games are careful to not make players feel uncomfortable by making them move their body suddenly or wildly. VR technology continues to develop in a paradoxical climate, where it’s aiming to sell commercially to be played in living rooms by marketing “immersion,” while remaining satisfied with the gamer remaining glued to the couch. It makes sense too because if VR employed full body motion tracking, then people wearing VR headsets would trip over their living room tables, their thinly-veiled mirage being broken by them falling flat on the floor. Even Valve’s Vive has a “base station” that tracks player movement in a small 15×15 feet space, where players can’t escape embodiment.

As our fingers mash buttons and our hands grip the controllers, no matter how much audiovisual stimuli the VR device offers, immersion will always hit a wall of embodiment. The illusion of feeling we’re inside a virtual space is always under a constantly pervasive realization that we’re actually in another body that’s sitting, standing, moving and being in a completely separate environment.

The important question that runs underneath this entire issue isn’t whether it’s even possible to design commercial VR technology that can offer non-traditional controllers without endangering the safety, but if that would even be enough. Would it be enough to isolate us on all fronts from our physical environments and remove our sense of self?

Instead of worrying if VR can bridge the gap between the sensations of our physical self and the fantasy of our virtual avatar, it might be useful to consider VR as a means to an end. Rather than being our ticket to a cyberspace future and immersive media, virtual reality is offering us, here and now, an opportunity to study how technology is changing how we perceive and understand media. VR works like Matt Romein’s Tripping in the Rift offer novel and interesting ways to augment our own vision with virtual reality as we navigate a glitched out physical space. Maybe, as many complex interactive digital installations like Cocoon and Floating Flower Garden show, our body might often be the best and most reliable controller to input feedback into a digital system.

Rather than chase after the mythical “total immersion” (like its cousin “graphical realism”), technology can be used to create more meaningful and interesting experiences by understanding their limitations and exploring the inherent tension prevalent in the medium and its components.

Ansh Patel is a game developer and an occasional pop culture critic who tweets philosophical ruminations and angry political rants @lightnarcissus. His words and games can be found at