Emotion vs Immersion

If you spend any amount of time thinking about, reading about, or developing something for VR, one of the buzzwords you hear frequently is immersion. We strive to create immersive experiences, where the viewer feels transported to a different place, but one where the paradigms are carefully managed, so that the person in the HMD feels transported – physically present in a virtual world.

Presence is the important term here. Simple things can break this sense of presence very easily – for example a camera that is too far above the ground. A missing physical body frequently can break this sense too, although including hands via either controllers like the vive or a system like the leap motion helps immensely with the sense of self that exists in the virtual reality. So developers right now spend a lot of time thinking about how to create presence, how to offer the viewer or player something that is as immersive as possible, in a variety of ways. Haptics, peripherals, devices that blow air in your face, spaces you can move around in and experience positional tracking naturally, seats that move your body in reaction to your VR experience, visual feedback in game, etc etc.

Immersion is important, but in some sense, it’s only important right now – it’s something we need to master, yes. But in 5 years, nobody will be talking about creating immersive content, it will just be one aspect of what you do. It might even be that you make conscious choices about breaking presence, in order to craft a different, hybrid reality experience. Right now, immersion is key, because when you’re new to VR, the thing that will blow your mind is actually feeling like you have been transported to some new world, some place that you are physically present. The WOW reaction that a VRgin has, is based mostly on how successfully we do this.

But that wow feeling only exists for a very short window of time. I’m past wow already, when it comes to immersion. It’s still cool, it’s still intriguing to be in a different place, but what gets me now is what is actually fun – what makes my experience great? Is it the strong visuals? (TheBlu) Interesting story? (Gone)Fun gameplay? (Goosebumps) Fear? (Dreadhalls) Sound? (Ossic)? The key going forward, I think, is going to be only partly dependent on these. Immersion will be a fact of life, but not what sells somebody on the experience you’re giving them. You won’t sell units based on immersion, unless you’re immersing someone in a completely unique place (e.g. SpaceVR) The really important thing we actually need to master is emotion. VR has a capability to create emotion in people that no medium to date has had the power to do. Yes – film can make you feel sad, or inspired, or fearful, but the inherent nature of film is that you are one step removed from that emotion. It’s temporary, it’s not part of our actual experience of the world. We remember that we saw something on a screen that evoked an emotion. When we go through an emotional journey, personally experience something like love, or fear, that is as different from the emotion you feel watching a film, as black and white television is to IMAX. VR takes you that far again into emotion. It doesn’t matter if it’s created content. It doesn’t even matter if it is realistic feeling content, our brains will experience it as though it is no different from reality. Logically, you may know that you are wearing a HMD, that it isn’t ‘real’. But viscerally and subconsciously, you will feel that emotion in the parts of your brain that are immune to reason, that existed far earlier in our evolutionary history.

Consider falling in love. What is the experience of falling in love like, from your brain’s perspective? Forget the stories we tell ourselves, consider instead what we feel when someone holds eye contact with us for the first time. What that rush of oxytocin feels like to our system. It’s not really dependent on the person we fall in love with – if it was, we’d all make far better choices when dating. It’s about the experience and feelings that the other person succeeds in creating, in us.

In VR, we can already give you eye contact, we can, within a few years, given reasonably well designed AI, successfully mimic all of the things that could make you feel love and affection for someone, only you would be falling in love with a virtual character. If that’s not something you personally find compelling, consider that the genre of books, year over year, that consistently outsells every other genre, is romance novels. There’s a reason for that – and it’s not because they’re original, or great literature. Just look at the Twilight franchise. The reason it was so successful is in part because the protagonist is an every-girl. Non-descript, Bella is what every ordinary girl dreams she could be, if only the right boy/sparkly vampire found her.  VR gives us the opportunity to play every role we ever wished for, try out being a superhero, or the girl the vampire loves, but only if we succeed in making the viewer feel that power, those emotions.

Even if you’re not interested in creating LoVR, it’s worth considering as we build narratives, and experiences, and games, that we should be creating an emotional script as we go – just as the film and animation industry create color scripts that dictate what every scene of a movie feels like, we should create emotion scripts, so at every moment in our experience, we know what emotion we are trying to create in the user, whether that is fear, love, joy, frustration, embarrassment, or anger. Even more complex emotions should not be out of reach for us, providing that is something we approach consciously. Design for the subconscious brain, make it feel, and there is no limit to what we can do with reality.


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