My last post referenced a movie of a “talk show” in Second Life, prompting John to ask about the relationship of avatar richness to the experience. I think there’s a simple trick that’s worth making explicit.
It’s true that these figures don’t seem very real. They act like zombies and watching them seems to induce a pathetic little trance-like behavior in me. The best high-speed single-user video games are much richer, and big-budget movies are much richer still. At the other end, there are now Flash-based “virtual worlds” with quite stilted graphics and behaviors. On this scale, Croquet and Qwaq Forums are roughly in the same region as Second Life, but within their range today’s SL is frankly richer than Forums.
Video games have long been able to produce an immersive effect with much cruder graphics and behaviors. I think a lot of it is very simply your interactive point of view. For example, studies have used mobile cameras that fed live video into googles. When the camera was attached to the back of a person so that they saw their own head from behind, the participants reported an “out of body” sensation. So I think the whole “trick” is to have a visual field that contains the focus of your attention, and put that visual field under the direct-manipulation control of the user.
The feeling of immersion is from the user-control of the visual field of interest, not from the richness of the visuals themselves.
As a result, you can get a feeling of immersion from the simple 2D graphics of a Nintendo GameBoy. By contrast, there’s a hell of a lot of visual stuff going on in a WebEx or Adobe Breeze meeting, but they still suck. There’s absolutely no feeling of immersion. I think the problem is that your visual interest is all over the screen, and there’s no pairing of that to your control.
In the case of the talking heads video, you’re watching a movie that you have no visual control over. The virtual camera pans around, but not by you. By contrast, I expect that the Second Life folks who were “in” the virtual audience did have a strong sense of immersion, even though they were looking at the same avatars that you see in the movie.
I think a visually fantastic film can be an engaging experience, even if it is on a small TV screen. You can be “immersed” in a radio story. But I think the sense of body immersion only comes when a great cinematographer moves the camera so that the bulk of your visual interest follows exactly as you would yourself if you were present. When the camera doesn’t move the way my eyes want to, I find myself thinking about the movie as a movie, and the effect is lost. Movie theaters and big-screen home theaters make it possible for the cinematographer’s effect to tickle your brain in the right way. (I image that there’s also an audio component to this brain trick. Maybe for sighted people, the visual stimulation lights up a larger proportion of the brain?)
The difference between a meeting and a broadcast is that you interact with people in a meeting. Your attention had better shift to the people you are interacting with. There’s no opportunity to employ the visual trick with a telephone. iChat, NetMeeting, Skype and such all have visually rich live video feeds of users and can be quite engaging, but as long as they have segregated pictures with no fluid control, I believe it may be biologically impossible for them to induce any sense of actually being there. By contrast, you can put the same stupid PowerPoint in a virtual world, and with relatively simple graphics and audio you can have a very effective body-immersed meeting.