The Foundations of Immersive Media Research
Specific journalism-focused research on computer-generated, immersive video and live-action, immersive virtual reality is nascent. Some early studies have considered the potential of “immersive journalism” in virtual reality,9 and others have considered the necessarily changing nature of narrative form that will ensue in the VR space.10 Both draw extensively on earlier work on interactive, 2D media.
In order to broaden the baseline for a journalism-focused virtual reality discourse, it is valuable to draw upon the comparatively extensive scholarship about the implications of virtual reality on human-computer interaction and the process of visual representation. Scholars have already studied VR from the standpoint of human-computer interaction, seeking to better understand:
the technology’s implications for self-perception;
the technological factors that contribute to greater “presence,” exploring the interaction of users with CGI avatars;
and the impact virtual reality has on social stereotypes and memory.
There’s also a significant amount of research from the field of health sciences, where virtual reality is used as a low-risk simulation tool for patients with eating disorders, chronic pain, and autism.11 Researchers have used virtual reality to study social phenomena, such as interpersonal relations and emotions like empathy, as well.12
Throughout all this literature, a central and thematic question emerges about how closely experiences in virtual reality replicate real senses, emotions, and memories. While much of the existing research certainly does not overlap with journalism or even communication studies, it is still necessary that new VR practitioners in journalism closely monitor its observations.
Indeed, the research has produced two virtual reality concepts of particular relevance to journalism. They are Immersion and Presence. Both, to varying degrees, seek to describe the feeling that one is experiencing an alternate reality by way of a virtual system. It is this feeling of experiencing the other that is critical to journalistic application.
First, immersion is generally defined as the feeling that someone has left his or her immediate, physical world and entered into a virtual environment.13 In the virtual reality field, this is achieved via a headset or spaces known as Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVEs). A number of scholars have sought to define both the characteristics and technological requirements for achieving states of immersion. Seminal work by Witmer and Singer describes a feeling of being enveloped by, included in, or in interaction with a digital environment.14 They identify particular factors which promote immersion: the ease of interaction, image realism, duration of immersion, social factors within the immersion, internal factors unique to the user, and system factors such as equipment sophistication.15 Others are more technologically deterministic, focusing on the specific technology requirements to achieve what is called a multimodal, sensory input. They say that if an experience excludes the outside world, addresses many senses with high fidelity, surrounds the user, and matches the user’s bodily movements, it will create a sense of physical reality and be highly immersive.
The concept of immersion is widely used outside of virtual reality literature and is often applied to describe a wide range of digital journalism projects involving interactive 2D and gaming. In this sense, the degree of immersion can be interpreted on a spectrum ranging from scenarios in which the user is offered some agency and a first-person perspective, to the full VR experience wherein the user is embedded enough in the media to achieve a sense of altered reality.
Presence is often discussed in the context of immersive VR. Indeed, Witmer and Singer argue that there is a correlation between a greater feeling of immersion and a greater potential for feeling presence.16 The concept of presence is loosely defined as the feeling of “being there.” Its range of definitions all describe a state in which the user is taken somewhere else via technology, and truly feels transported. They also, however, are all but theoretical constructs, which place differing thresholds on the need for an absolute sense of detachment from physical reality. Kim and Biocca see presence as a combination between the “departure” from physical reality and the “arrival in a virtual environment.”17 Zahorik and Jenison suggest that presence is achieved when one reacts to a virtual environment as he or she would react to the physical world.18
The core value of virtual reality for journalism lies in this possibility for presence. Presence may engender an emotional connection to a story and place. It may also give audiences a greater understanding of stories when the spatial elements of a location are key to comprehending the reality of events. Nonny de la Peña, et al., identify a reaction when users respond to a media experience as if they are actually living through it, even though they know it is not real. They call this “Response As If Real” (RAIR). This is the primary, distinguishing characteristic between interactive and immersive media. A particularly powerful characteristic of the RAIR effect is, they say, the fact that it requires a very low level of fidelity. Even when the sophistication and fidelity of the technology is limited, users react to immersive experience in very real ways. This, in part, explains why relatively low-quality headsets (such as Google Cardboard) remain powerful despite their computational inferiority to more expensive systems. For de la Pena, et al., a combination of three variables determine the journalistic value of the RAIR effect: the representation of the place in which the experience is grounded, the feeling that events being experienced are real, and the transformation of the user’s positionality into a first-person participant.
It is worth noting that much of the early work studying immersive environments was conducted with computer-generated visuals, primarily in CAVEs, which allowed for manipulation by researchers; they do not necessarily replicate or truly mirror reality and generally relied on computer-generated avatars and scripted communication.
CAVE-based experiences derive from an entirely different generation of VR, and they operate very differently from the current wave of devices. Aside from the obvious differences between immersive media delivered into rooms versus head-mounted displays, advances in camera and post-production technology now make it possible to film live-motion VR much more readily. While this 360-degree video still undergoes significant computational post-production, we hypothesize that its effects on audiences will create a new category for research. As this kind of video starts its journey as light from the physical world, captured by a sensor, it attempts to mimic the human eye. The end result is as different from computer-generated environments as photography was from illustration. And so there remains a tremendous opportunity for a new phase of virtual reality research.