The way an emerging technology articulates itself often plays a much larger role in its uptake than the quality and utility of the technology itself. This is the power of language, and of marketing. It’s also often the case that the terminology used to describe a technology when it first erupts onto the scene sticks with it for good. Once branded, it’s branded for life.
We’ve been using the same language to describe the virtual reality (VR) experience since it became available to the consumer. We talk about VR as immersive, interactive, transformational, groundbreaking, innovative. We also talk about the universe virtual reality (VR) unlocks, our presence within it, and the state of flow it induces in us.
These terms share a very distinct set of qualities. They are all grandiose, romantic and superlative, and they all lack specificity. What these words fail to provide is space to accommodate for any of VR’s imperfections, and this might prove an issue in years to come.
Words like immersive and innovative have started to sound like hollow – even desperate – jargon, and may well start to have the opposite of their desired effect. It’s as if we’re using them time and again in the hope that their repeated utterance will somehow magically bring them to fruition. Instead, this process has driven out any meaning the terms once had.
The VR lexicon is due a considerable overhaul. It’s high time the industry found more expressive and particular ways to discuss the phenomenon of virtual reality because the current vocabulary is doing it a disservice.
Reinvention is much more difficult than the title of this article makes it sound. The terminology that attaches itself to any new technology at the outset has a distinct stickiness.
We’ve seen this phenomenon play out in the blockchain industry over the past year or so. Some companies entering the scene have attempted to distance themselves from the word blockchain, due to its association with cryptocurrency and the orbiting controversies. Some are choosing to use Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) as a kind of sanitized synonym.
The unique responsibility – you might even say burden – of a brand-new technology is that it must describe itself accurately and convincingly to an audience without a frame of reference. For this reason, the temptation is to describe an infant technology, before anyone quite knows what it’s capable of or what it will become, in flowery and unspecific ways.
Enter immersive, the go-to term for describing a VR experience that’s in any way pleasing or remarkable.
As Emily Brown and Paul Cairns of UCL’s Interaction Centre point out in their paper, A Grounded Investigation of Game Immersion, “it is very difficult to find out what exactly is meant by immersion and indeed even whether the different research on immersion is talking about the same concept.”
This slippery quality is precisely what made the term perfect for the early VR marketeers, but it’s also what’s now limiting discussion of the VR experience. The vocabulary of virtual reality is built upon the word immersion, a foundation that no one can pin down, qualify or interpret convincingly.
Brown and Cairns conclude their paper by stating: “Immersion is an intense experience that we have begun to clearly describe…this study has only scratched the surface”. It’s not quite an acknowledgement of defeat, but it’s not far off one either.
Moving beyond immersion
Perhaps instead of attempting to retrospectively apply meaning to a word as elusive as immersion, as Brown and Cairns attempt to do, we should look to unshackle virtual reality from the term entirely.
The onus is on the industry to somehow find a way to communicate the nuanced qualities of the VR experience in a way that both emphasizes its considerable merits, but also leaves room for its deficiencies.
If marketeers and industry professionals hold aloft the ill-defined concept of immersion as the immovable goalposts for VR, it’s going to continue to disappoint and to underperform.
The current popular vocabulary implies that VR is capable of inducing both the place illusion, the feeling of actually existing in a non-existent place, and the plausibility illusion, the genuine belief that a simulation is reality.
In truth, VR is currently only able to provoke glimmers of these sensations. For a flickering moment, the player might mistake the unreal for the real, or briefly forget their geographical location, but only ever for a moment. This in itself is remarkable enough.
Perhaps the state of immersion isn’t even what developers should be aspiring towards. Surely fun is a much more appropriate and rewarding goal. There’s plenty of time for the illusions of place and plausibility to be realised, but for now they are still ultimately a thing of (perhaps dystopian) fiction.
Immersion doesn’t necessarily equate to fun. It’s actually quite a serious term, when you consider the implications of becoming convinced that you’re somewhere you’re not, in a reality that’s not your own.
For now, I’d like to see virtual reality understood for what it is: a striking sensory experience, and a brand new artistic medium – but, most importantly, an imperfect one.