Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Full Immersion

No, this is not a Baptist revival meeting. Today I want to talk about the sort of immersion that can occur in a virtual reality environment such as Second Life -- and your first experience of it might indeed be a sort of baptism, in a sense.

Immersion does not happen to everyone who logs into a virtual world. Some people never lose the sense of themselves sitting there in front of their computer, operating their “toon” on the screen. Others slip in and out of immersion, either at will or unconsciously. And still others plunge into the virtual world, losing much of their awareness of the “real” world.

How do you know if you are immersed? Perhaps the best description of immersion I’ve ever come across is this. Consider two computer-aided communications methods: video teleconferencing, and Second Life.

When you’re using the former, there is no sense of a shared reality. You are “out here”, watching a screen with other people on it. If someone leans close to their camera pickup, you have no sense that your personal space is being invaded. They appear larger, but they are still “in there”, on the other side of the screen.

In contrast, when you are an avatar in Second Life, and another avatar steps up close to you, you may feel uncomfortable…just as you would in real life when someone invades your personal space. Your instinctive reaction is to move your avatar back a step. That’s immersion.

This sense of immersion, of “really being there” is perhaps the most compelling feature of virtual life. It can be, however, a hazard as well as a thrill…because while other people can interact with you in pleasant ways (often very pleasant indeed!) they can also interact in ways that are emotionally painful or frightening.

Once, when I was fairly new to SL, I had bought a new outfit with some parts that needed editing to fit correctly. I was in a public place, but there happened to be a pose stand nearby, so I hopped on it and began fiddling with the position of my attachments. While I was doing this, another avatar flew by, then stopped and watched me for a while from a distance. Suddenly he ran up to me, and used an animation HUD of some kind to leap on me. Up close, he was ugly, almost demonic in appearance, and his HUD whispered lascivious phrases to me in chat.

I was startled, and frightened. Before I could figure out what to do, he hopped off and teleported away…but I shook for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes afterward. I felt violated, almost as if I had been raped. I have heard many similar stories from others since then, and they all report this sense of fear, shame, and helplessness.

Now that I am more experienced, I’ve developed the ability to “step back”, to pull away mentally and emotionally from the virtual world back into my home office when I need to. But until you develop this knack of distancing yourself from your avatar, unpleasant encounters in SL can be just as shocking as they would be in real life. So, young avatar, come on in, the water’s fine…but be careful of the riptides, hmm? Remember that you can get out of ANY bad spot with CTRL+Q, the Quit command.

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