That Looks Awesome! Why 3D Immersion Ain’t

There’s been a lot of talk about the value of immersion in 3D virtual worlds of late. Overheard at VW08: “It’s just like the real world, but you’re able to share it with far flung friends and family. You can see them standing there and all the things you do in the real world happen naturally — presence, gesture, place — they all transfer. That is the power of virtual worlds: to be immersed.” Many of us want to believe; especially considering all the sex appeal currently associated with online worlds. But take this example:

Players in World of Warcraft are in the heat of an epic battle. And they’re losing. Just as the last great warriors are about to fall, a sword powerful enough to vanquish the evil one is discovered. But at the pivotal moment when the sword is being handed over to the valiant party leader, the action comes to a screeching halt — and a sheepish farm boy asks: “Uh… How do you hand something from one player to another?” Response: “Bring up your inventory screen Control-I…”

Hello man behind the curtain! This is a classic scene from South Park, but the reason it’s so funny is that it rings true. Immersion in online worlds is beautiful, but it ain’t perfect. Just because a 3D world looks reasonably close to the real one doesn’t mean it’s perfectly straightforward to interact with. Often the contrary.

People are central to virtual worlds, but it’s instructive that we have so many different ways of representing ourselves. Which is the most immersive representation? Which lends itself most readily to deep social interaction? Avatars in Sony Home might look realistic but that level of detail makes them more complex to customize (plus they’re precariously close to the uncanny valley). Representing people as dots makes them super easy to customize but limits expressiveness. Nintendo’s Miis offer a clever middle ground — where the design of emotive avatars is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.

So, avatars are central to immersion, right? I mean, we’re visual creatures, after all. But so many questions remain: Is it easier to socialize in WoW or IRC? Is it easier to stay in touch using Twitter or Second Life? Folks come down hardcore on all sides. Why? Because it depends. One might be better for presence, the other better for focusing on the thread of conversation. One might be better for being in the moment, another for tracking communication over time. Some folks might find a pure text interface engaging in its simple immediacy; others find a graphical world engrossing for its visual detail. All these things can be immersive.

Text adventure innovator Infocom traded on just this issue — making it known that leaving something to the imagination can be more powerful than laying it all out there. And while Infocom ultimately broke its promise to never make a game with graphics (it’s most masterful games remain the text ones), the point still stands. Immersion is contextual: it’s different for everyone. It’s all about getting into that flow state where the medium disappears and the world consumes you. Which is more immersive: spending years in an empathic online forum for breast cancer survivors or playing Call of Duty 4? Just as I can be equally immersed in a book as in a movie, so I can be equally immersed in a text-based world as in a 2D graphical one as a fully 3D surround sound shutter glasses lights out rumble enabled experience. Want an example? Witness the endlessly addictive ascii art of NetHack.

Immersion isn’t about taking over your screen, it’s about taking over your mind. And it never happens the same way twice.

5 Responses to “That Looks Awesome! Why 3D Immersion Ain’t”


  1. 1 lotuslee

    in the future, there may be a new profession called “computer stylist” to design the look or even voice of people’s internet identities. :-)

  2. 2 Jason

    I’m sure you’re right! We’ve already seen the beginnings of this with IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano appearing with a professionally styled avatar in Second Life and companies like Electric Sheep helping companies choose the right platform and level of detail for engagements. Won’t be long before we see online representation consulting go large. Do you see my best side better in 3D or 2.5? Or should I just give it up and go all text? ;-)

  3. 3 David Simon

    Nethack is totally unplayable in text mode for me, probably since I don’t have a UNIX guru background. I have to use a tileset before I can get anywhere at all (and by anywhere, I mean about Dlvl 8 before I get killed by a bloody boulder trap), just so that I can differentiate among the dozen or so things potentially represented by, say, a lowercase b.

    What makes NetHack immersive for me, though, is not the graphical style so much as the control mechanism. You touch on that in your handing-over-the-sword example; suspension of disbelief isn’t broken over bad visuals, it’s broken when the player doesn’t know how to do something that they know they should be able to do, and has to sit back and think in terms of their keyboard/controller/wiimote/whatever rather than within the game universe.

    For me, if all the various things you can accomplish within the game are easily at hand, without having to think about it too much, then immersion just happens. For example, the huge command list of NetHack is unwieldy, but once I had some experience under my belt, I started thinking “break the wand” rather than “extended #apply”.

    Another example that you mentioned is Infocom games. In those, and other IF, the highly reduced subset of English you use for commands is totally unconvincing as narration goes (“examine bed; examine desk; examine drawer; examine pencil; etc etc etc”) but make sense once the player gets a feel for how text adventures are organized.

    So, I totally agree with what (it seems like to me) you’re saying: once the actual interaction with the game world feels natural, then immersion happens, whether you’ve got pretty 3d graphics or ASCII art. Not that pretty 3d graphics are unappreciated, but photorealism just isn’t measured on the same scale as world realism.

  4. 4 surya

    its not a farm boy! it is Stan’s dad :D

  5. 5 Jason

    David: Great points. User interface issues are definitely one of the things that can impede immersion. But, as you mention, once you’ve come to grips with them, they can feel natural. Folks figure that graphical worlds are fully straightforward because they “look like the real world” and that’s when the trouble begins.

    You’re right: I certainly didn’t mean to say that 3D graphics are worthless but, rather, that they aren’t the all around win that is sometimes assumed. To my mind, the way to the future isn’t so much about going higher and higher fidelity visually but rather developing a deep understanding of what representations work best in specific situations. Sometimes restraint is rewarded.

    surya: Indeed! I just simplified for those who aren’t South Park fans. The fact that it’s Stan’s dad does add something, though, doesn’t it? :-)

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