The Oculus Rift is not just “another gaming device” – it promises to initiate the next step in the evolution of media
Among the video gamer it’s talk of the town, and soon it may be among many more people: the Oculus Rift, a new high-quality but low-cost Virtual Reality head-mounted display that may be officially released by end of this year (https://www.oculus.com/rift/). Once a Kickstarter-funded project, Oculus Rift was bought by Facebook in 2014 for 2 billion USD – showing that the device promises not only to change the way of video gaming, but of social media, too. Therefore it’s great that the Network Institute – a competence center for interdisciplinary academic research on the digital world – is involved in virtual reality research, too!
But what’s so special about the Oculus Rift? The best way to understand this is to try it out yourself (the NI Gamecella features currently 3 Oculus Rift headsets, including this version of a Paris’ apartment; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVL9yKwx_aY; another nice examples is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHDQ8hzOGqw). Once the display is properly set up and your eyes a completely covered, you will realize that you feel like if your whole body is spatially transported into the virtual world. You perceive real three-dimensional depth. It feels as if you can actually touch objects. And as if the room really extends both in front of you and behind you – you feel enveloped by the virtual environment. This is a completely new media experience! Something that was mostly only possible for the last 20 years in highly specialized labs with expensive equipment. But the plans are that this high-end VR technology will soon enter the living rooms.
Scholars address the experience that people have when wearing the Oculus Rift as Presence (or spatial presence or telepresence). Presence is simply about “the feeling of being there”. If present, people feel like their body is really located in the virtual room. They know that this is not true, but their senses provide them with a strong feeling as if it was true. People that feel present intuitively duck their head if walking through a small door and feel as if they could really touch objects in the environment. Or they refrain from walking over a steep cliff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-mK5oNkr-I).
As a communication scholar with a media-psychological perspective, I examine Presence for about 9 years now. I would argue that something fundamentally changes if we feel spatially present in a virtual environment. Really feeling spatially present is different than watching TV or even a 3D movie or a video game on a computer screen. We may understand the space depicted on television, and we may even temporarily forget a bit about our actual surrounding, but we never feel this striking sensory experience of really being located in the perceived TV space. It is as if our brain simulates the space (e.g., as if drawing a map), but doesn’t position our own body inside of it. People probably won’t feel like they could reach out to a can of Coke, if watching an advertisement. But if wearing an Oculus Rift this changes. It feels as if the perceived spatial environment actually is the real environment. People feel like and actually do reach out to a can of Coke if they see it. (These thoughts I addressed together with colleagues in a theoretical model of Spatial Presence formation; see http://dare.ubvu.vu.nl/bitstream/handle/1871/39459/202481.pdf?sequence=1).
What is a virtual object for us? Where is it located? What does it really “mean”? And if we say, “this feels real”, what does this imply? My feeling is – and I plan to further examine this question – that things “come into existence” if we feel spatially present. That is, if we watch a cup of Coke on TV, we just feel it’s a cup of Coke, but we also feel it is not located in our environment, it has no volume, no body, no real existence. This reminds us of what we already know: that the cup of coke is just represented on a TV screen, it does not really exist right here and now in the living room. However, if we perceive the cup of Coke while wearing an Oculus Rift, it will automatically feel as if the cup has a volume, a body, as if it would really “claim space” (like real objects do), and we can also locate it easily in what feels to be our own spatial environment. My impression is that due to this change, things switch from being perceived as mere representations – like objects displayed on a TV screen – to objects that are intuitively perceived to exist in the here and now. In addition, the thing we always know, namely that “these things are not true, they are just illusions” becomes less apparent in our mind, as if we are temporarily blinded by the power of the illusion and forget about it more than if watching TV.
If this assumption is true, it would have great implications. For example, think about encountering virtual people. If you would feel as if they would actually exist (because they are located in the here and now), you would probably treat them differently than if you would be fully aware that they are just symbolic representations or “pixels on a screen”. You would probably treat them with respect, similar to the way you treat real people. In my own research I have shown that video game users felt guilty if shooting innocent virtual people, although they of course knew that these were just “pixels on the screen”. I assume that the feeling of guilt most be much stronger if shooting innocent virtual people in an Oculus Rift environment. Simply, because it felt as if these people actually existed. This is something we like to study in the NI Gamecella.
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