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April 08, 2008

That Looks Awesome! Why 3D Immersion Ain’t

Posted in: Games,Technology

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.


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