What is Immersive?

With the explosion of virtual reality (VR) technology, the terms immersive (adj) or immersion (noun) have become over-hyped, carelessly used to imply engaging or exciting products. Within the IA community, we should be precise about definitions, measurements and objectives, especially when using this term immersive.

As a baseline, several dictionary definitions for immersion are: plunging into a liquid, absorb in some interest, deep mental involvement, or study with extensive exposure within a pertinent environment. For our purposes, we will focus on the latter three definitions.

A simple definition would be: An immersive experience elicits the realistic feeling of being there or being present within a virtual space. In other words, the consciousness of a person is transported from their immediate reality to an alternative reality. As a trick of the mind, the person is now learning and deciding within this new context. The trick is enhanced if the person can sense himself or herself as an avatar (i.e., an object with eyes and ears) within that immersive space. Further,  the usefulness of an immersive experience increases if one experiences it with others. Multi-person immersive spaces allow shared experiences and collaborative actions. Hence, immersion is defined as being there with others.

Although this definition is simple, it is also profound, spanning psychology, philosophy and other disciplines. The questions – “What is immersive?” and “Is immersive useful and practical” – should be the center of continual debates. Its profoundness is, however, eased by two observations: Immersive is not new, and there is supporting research.

Immersion Is Not New

campfireThe immersive experience is not new within human history. Imagine a camp fire thousands of years ago in the wilds of Africa. A tribal elder is sharing their core beliefs about creation and its tactical implications for the hunt tomorrow. Was he achieving an immersive experience? The answer may have determined the success of that hunt.

Technology is not a necessary ingredient for an immersive experience, although it can certainly assist. Mankind has been able to transport people into fantasy worlds for centuries, all without much technology. That tribal elder probably used a few tricks (crackling fire and scary night sounds) to assist in his storytelling.

Let me share a low-tech personal immersive experience. I was conducting a workshop in Melbourne and faced a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles. At the airport bookstore, I bought a best-selling Tom Clancy novel. As we were taking off, I started reading the book. In what seemed like an hour, we were landing in Melbourne. For most of the flight, I was not seating on an airplane. Instead, I was crawling through a Brazilian jungle investigating a terrorist group. This happened almost twenty years ago, and I still vividly remember the experience. A good novel is probably the best immersive technology ever invented by mankind. So, put down that Rift and pick up an immersive book!

Immersion Has Been Researched

For some time, I have compiled research articles related to immersive topics. Over the coming months, we need to organize and review this research from the perspective of immersive analytics. Further, we should embrace the good research and extend it for immersive analytics. To initiate this process, I will introduce two blog series – IA Research Disciplines and IA Research Groups – to capture key journals, conferences, and universities with which the IA community should be familiar.

MilgramContinuum1A useful paradigm comes from an IEICE Transaction paper by Milgram and Kishino in 1994, which proposed a virtuality continuum that connects completely real environments with completely virtual ones. The virtual spaces for immersive analytics start on the right side but can span to the left with mixtures of reality with virtuality, allowing enormous design flexibility.

Is Immersion Useful?

The challenge is determining whether this immersive experience is useful or effective to understand a concept or perform a task? The video gaming industry with its billions in revenue has proven that immersive experiences can engage thousands for its entertainment value. The more time that players are engaged with a game, the more they will spend money to continue playing that game.

A goal for the IA community is to demonstrate (and prove with properly designed research) that immersive analytics is (or is not) effective for data discovery and its operationalization. We expect to find that certain use cases using certain designs will utilize immersive experiences effectively, while other situations will not. Sorting through those combinations and understanding why certain combinations work is the challenge.

Version 2 – 20151007