This paper aims to provide an overview of the ways in which virtual reality technology is using immersion to tell stronger stories in a variety of fields. The primary focus will be on the gaming, educational and social awareness applications of VR technology, however it should be kept in mind that there are many other important uses of this medium.
For over two decades, the phenomenon of virtual reality has been on the horizon. A number of this paper’s sources are from this early period when scholars, technologists and creators began speculating about the potential of this futuristic capability. These thinkers began to define the characteristics of the developing medium. In her 1994 journal article, Virtual Reality: Venus Return or Vanishing Point, Kiersta Fricke offers a very early analysis of the potential power of virtual reality. She describes the immense potential for immersion that this technology would soon offer. Fricke argues that virtual reality’s ability to offer immersion to its audience has the power to fulfill a basic human urge that, up to that point, had gone unrealized: transcendence. This concept of transcendence, in Fricke’s estimation, relates to the ability to move past the constraints of space and time and to be a participant in the experiences of others. By facilitating transcendence, Fricke argues that virtual reality will be an extremely powerful tool for storytelling tool.
Another theorist, Kathleen De La Peña McCook, in her article The First Virtual Reality, compares virtual reality to the act of reading and the immersion offered by other forms of media. Written in 1993, McCook’s work is an insightful forecasting of the transformative nature of virtual reality and speculates on how the technology would soon be able to deepen the immersion experience for its audiences. While these writers were excited about virtual reality’s potential for immersive experience, others viewed the immersion promised by the new technology with trepidation. One of the writers who viewed virtual reality’s promise of increased immersion with anxiety is Marie-Laure Ryan. In 1999, Ryan wrote an article entitled, Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory. In this piece she sets forth her opinions on virtual reality and her anxiety that the new technology might detract from true reality. Regardless of the opinions of these early thinkers, all understood that the heightened immersion offered by VR technologies would have a transformative effect on the ways stories could be told.
In Mel Slater’s article, Place Illusion and Plausibility Can Lead to Realistic Behavior in Immersive Virtual Environments, he makes an interesting argument regarding the benefits of immersive virtual reality on storytelling in videogames. In the article, he outlines his theories regarding “place illusion” (PI) in virtual reality and how the concept works, not only to make game worlds more similar to the real world, but also to makes the participant’s behavior more realistic as well. Slater defines the concept of place illusion by arguing that “It is the strong illusion of being in a place in spite of the sure knowledge that you are not there.” He differentiates this from the concept of immersion by claiming, “Immersion provides the boundaries within which [place illusion] can occur.” Essentially, the high levels of immersion unlocked by virtual reality technology is capable of producing place illusion in participants. These technologies, which achieve the highest levels of immersion and most seamless replication of reality allow a participant to reach the highest levels of place illusion. However, the two are distinct concepts because participants in a high-immersion VR environment are capable of having a low PI experience if they find a feature in the experience which detracts from the illusion of actually being there. Slater argues that only VR systems are capable of inspiring PI in their participants. VR’s use of sensory technology to replicate a lifelike interaction with a virtual environment differentiates it from traditional computer-driven video games and allows it to achieve PI. The significance of Slater’s argument is that the PI, realized by VR technology, leads participants to act as they would if they were experiencing the same things in the real world. Through the immersive nature of virtual reality, PI has the ability to increase the depth which we engage with videogames. While virtual reality has certainly has the power to alter how people experience the games that consume their free-time, it also has the potential to profoundly change how people are educated.
In a 2008 study entitled, The Use of Immersive Virtual Reality in the Learning Sciences: Digital Transformations of Teachers, Students, and Social Context, researchers examined how immersive VR technology could be used to improve learning outcomes. The team of researchers enumerated a list of unique digital affordances, or capabilities, offered by immersive technologies and endeavored to test them through a series of experiments. Some of the crucial affordances of VR technology’s educational application are, “embodied Agents that teach and learn,” “co-learners” and “simulation of dangerous or expensive lessons.” Each of these affordances refer to a separate benefit offered by the immersive nature of virtual reality. Each can be incorporated into educational VR experiences to simulate a true class experience and in some cases, make it even more impactful than live teaching. The “embodied agents that teach and learn” affordance refers to VR’s ability to create virtual teachers and other forms of educational protagonists which rely on the immersion offered by virtual reality to both teach and perform learning exercises. This affordance of virtual reality to create and implement a customized educational figure into an immersive learning environment allows the medium to feature an educator perfectly tailored to the requirements of a unique educational setting, seamlessly integrated into the immersive platform. The “co-learners” affordance refers to VR’s ability to populate its interface with accurate virtual representations of student peers which may interact with a user. The researchers argue that immersive virtual reality is capable of rendering virtual co-learners who are able to replicate the behavior of real students or can be altered in order to manipulate the learning environment for a desired learning experience. Finally, the “simulation of dangerous or expensive lessons” affordance refers to virtual reality’s ability to safely immerse a participant in the simulation of an experience which would be dangerous in the real world, however, has significant learning advantages. Because of this affordance, researchers argue that virtual reality is capable of giving learners experiences which they would only be able to verbally describe in a traditional classroom setting. These three affordances of virtual reality illustrate how the immersive experience offered by the technology opens new avenues for teaching which have never before been accessible.
The immersive qualities of virtual reality technologies also hold promise for social scientists in their quest to build a better developed understanding of human prejudice. In a joint-article called, What Immersive Virtual Environment Technology Can Offer to Social Cognition, a team of social cognition researchers describe how immersive reality technology offers the opportunity to improve experimentation in their field of research. The researchers conducted studies designed to reveal insights into how humans think of and interact with race, intending to unlock a deeper grasp of how prejudice manifests itself in our world. In this article, the scientists argue that the sense of immersion facilitated by VR technology unlocks three groundbreaking opportunities for improving their experimentation methodologies. The co-writers argue that immersive VR introduces the possibility of randomly generating an alternate racial identity for a participant in a VR experiment, therefore enabling the researchers to identify how preconceptions affect how a participant behaves while being virtually immersed in the perspective of someone with a different racial identity. They continue by describing how immersive experiences could be designed to seamlessly include subtle stimuli, manipulated by the researcher as an independent variable. The authors argue that the empirical data generated by participant’s reactions to these subtle stimuli could help to elicit deeper insights into the nature of a subject’s racial biases through more accurate and constructive experimental results. Finally, they argue that the immersive nature of VR allows for researchers to measure where test participants direct their attention within their experimental experiences. They contend that these insights into the attention patterns of subjects will yield additional insights into the nature of human prejudice. The article presents some exhilarating possibilities for understanding and thereby fighting racial discrimination through experimental research using immersive VR technology. By extension, the medium holds the potential to similarly impact realms of social science research and advocacy.
Taken together, these three scholarly articles illustrate the tremendous potential of immersive VR technology to deepen the storytelling capabilities of game developers, educators and social scientists. They demonstrate that the immersive affordances of virtual reality can enhance the power of a game-maker’s experience, teacher’s lesson and a social scientist’s experiment. This paper aims to excite the reader about the broad variance of potential applications for immersive virtual reality technology and also to show the profound opportunities that VR offers in many arenas. It is the author’s hope that this sampling of case studies inspires the reader to attempt to conceive of new realms which could benefit from the affordances of immersion in VR. This technology is capable of transforming every facet of our world, making completely immersive storytelling possible. It is through its unique collection of affordances that VR offers a full sensory experience, capable of opening every arena to new possibilities.