Tagarchief: new media

On immersion 10: Immersion in new media theory

The works of Murray, Grau and Ryan discussed in the previous posts give a preliminary understanding of what it means to be immersed and how this process works. Murray presupposes immersion to be perceptual and therefore solves the tension between immersion and interaction by arguing that successful media become transparent to its users. Murray’s description of immersion as transportation involves an unclear movement between reality and fiction. This movement is in need of a suspension of disbelief, thus assuming the relation between reality and fiction to be one of truth instead of fictionality: only when we believe something to be true, we can be immersed and feel real emotions. As Murray seems to stress imagination as the location for immersion, it is unclear what the exact role of objects and representations is. This forms an inconsistency in her intent to rid new technology of its dystopian connotations and to celebrate its narrative capacities, as she implicitly seems to devalue the role of stimuli.

As for Grau, immersion is presented as being generated by illusion spaces. For Grau it is essential that the medium evades the consciousness, and makes the viewer or reader believe in its representation. Therefore belief seems also for Grau a central condition for immersion. Both Murray and Grau see in new technology the potency of ‘tricking’ the observer in believing what is mediated being unmediated. This places them in what Bolter and Grusin call the historical desire for immediacy. We strive for a what Bazin calls the ‘myth of total cinema’, obsessed by a resemblance complex we hope one day representation might coincide with reality. Both Murray and Grau see new technological possibilities as the way to satisfy this desire. Therefore they support what Bolter and Grusin call the double logic of remediation: in the quest for a dissolving medium (immediacy), more and more technology is used and therefore not immediacy but hypermediacy is achieved.

Ryan, like Murray and Grau, supports an aesthetics of illusion, thus stressing the relation between representation and reality being one of truth and belief. She presupposes a relation between world and text and argues that the smaller the difference between the two (thus the more realistic the representation is), the higher the level of immersion will be. With this she introduces a scale of immersion, assuming the possibility of a gliding scale between “seeing-in” and “seeing-as”. By basing her theory on the acceptance that emotions for fiction are “not really” emotions, the ontological status of representations and emotional involvement needs clarification. This notion of quasi-emotions is not in line with Ryan’s argument for the recentering of the reader.

As Ryan argues herself, “we can debate endlessly what it means to be immersed”. (Ryan 17) We can view her gliding scale of immersion as an attempt to grasp the concept of immersion, which seems complex and slippery. It seems difficult to pinpoint what it exactly is and how it works. Ryan’s four level-scale is useful to illustrate this complexity, this elusiveness, but it does not provide us with a way to define or fully understand immersion. When Ryan argues that “literature has already perfected the art of immersive world construction.” (Ryan 12), this is one more reason to pursue a clear understanding of what is meant by immersion. Where Murray, Grau and Ryan give us their views on what it means to be immersed and how to achieve immersion through media and technology, their explanations also pose difficult questions involving, for instance, the status of emotions and the ontology of representations. These questions will be taken up in the next posts.

On immersion 8: Unconscious illusion

Virtual Art by Oliver Grau has a promising subtitle: From Illusion to Immersion. In Virtual Art, Grau studies new-media art and in particular virtual reality. Not unlike the method of Murray, Grau places virtual reality in the tradition of what he calls “illusion spaces” (Grau 4). Although it seems that Grau does not define illusion spaces, the goal of images as illusion spaces is to reduce or eliminate the psychological distance between viewer and “image space”. Grau does not explain the notion of image space, but I assume he means the space being represented in the (pictorial) representation. This seems to match Bolter and Grusin’s notion of the historical desire for immediacy and (therefore) illusion.

Grau starts his historical account with frescoes dating from 20 years BC and through the development of the image he moves towards a comprehensive description of the aesthetic, social and economic factors of the panorama, as introduced by Robert Barker in 1789.

Robert Barker's panorama
Robert Barker’s panorama

That this art form is central for his approach of the history of images, seems to lie largely in the cultural context of the panorama. Grau places the panorama in the cultural historical context where art forms were beginning to be used not ‘just’ to represent reality, but to constitute alternative realities. (1) Faux terrain (2) and later photography and film, all feeding the wish to exchange physical reality for a fictional reality by hiding their own embodiment as media. In otherwords, depicting reality becomes creation of another reality.

Faux Terrain
Faux Terrain

Grau’s historical overview ends, in line with the goal of Virtual Art, with an extensive discussion on new technologies being used to create virtual realities. Although Grau cannot hide his enthusiasm for computer generated virtual realities, he nuances his enthusiasm by placing the technological developments in a historical perspective. With this, he makes clear that the connotation of our present use of the term virtual reality is not exclusive to the realm of the new technological paradigm. Virtual reality has been pursued with panoramas and other art forms, and therefore immersion is a central concept in the history of representation. Grau gives an explanation of how immersion is achieved:

Immersion arises when artwork and technologically advanced apparatus, message and medium, are perceived to merge inseparably. In this moment of calculated “totalization”, the artwork is extinguished as an autonomously perceived aesthetic object for a limited period of time. Then conscious illusion, as in the weaker form of trompe d’oeil, can shift right around for a few moments into unconscious illusion. (Grau 340)

For Grau immersion thus occurs in a situation in which an object (a medium) and its representation merge in perception and this fusion is, for a given period, seen as one aesthetic object. This view of conscious bewilderment can, for a few moments, turn into unconscious illusion: immersion. Why for Grau the moments of unconscious illusion are short remains unclear (and somewhat counter intuitive), but perhaps this is because the medium is “fooling” or tricking the observer: eventually he or she will find out. Again, as with Murray, we see here what Bolter and Grusin call the desire for immediacy: a truly immersive experience must be preceded by the disappearance of the medium offering the representation. Grau calls this illusionism and remarks about his use of examples: “The examples discussed here demonstrate that a constant characteristic of the principle of immersion is to conceal the appearance of the actual illusion medium by keeping it beneath the perceptive threshold of the observer to maximize the intensity of the messages that are being conveyed. The medium becomes invisible” (Grau 340). One of the examples, the panorama developed by Barker, consisted of several landscape pictures arranged together. The set of landscapes involved manipulations of perspective, fooling the observer into believing to see a real landscape and therefore rendering the medium “invisible”. Immersion occurs the moment the observer shifts from conscious illusion (seeing a landscape in the panorama) to unconscious illusion (seeing the panorama as the landscape). According to Grau, new media and technologies like 3-D simulations, sensory suits and virtual reality employ the same strategy, that of “fooling” the observer into being unconscious of the medium by making the medium invisible.

The strive for immediacy
The strive for immediacy

Grau’s perspective on how immersion should be pursued becomes clear when he delineateshis use of the term immersion. In chapter one he limits his study to only those alternative realities that intervene with perception, which offer “particularly through their totality, the option of fusing with the image medium, which affects sensory impressions and awareness”. (Grau 13) With this, Grau emphasizes the difference between “non-hermetic effects of illusionistic painting, such as trompe l’oeil, where the medium is readily recognizable, […] image spaces that are delimited by a frame that is apparent to the observer, such as the theater[…]” and “[forms that are] suitable for communicating virtual realities in a way that overwhelms the senses.” (Grau 13, 14) Grau discards a great deal of media when it comes to immersion, arguing that “these image media [in their delineated form] stage symbolically the aspect difference. […] For this reason they do not form part of this study”. This difference is the difference between object and representation or the medium and what is mediated. This at least gives the impression that the understanding of immersion that Grau holds for his study is based on the need of an overwhelming sensory experience. This must be embodied in a medium that surrounds the viewer and on top of this can convincingly hide its own nature or materiality. A painting is therefore not what Grau calls immersive, but a panorama or faux terrain is. The painting does not conceal its being a painting, while the panorama and faux terrain do. The spatial dimension is essential to Grau and largely determines whether a viewer finds him- or herself involved in a different reality.

It is clear that immersion, and thus illusion, plays a dominant role in the history of representational art for Grau. He finds his view supported by technological developments such as the panorama, photography, film etc. For Grau, mankind is pursuing the creation of an ultimate virtual reality that is, at least on a sensory level, indistinguishable from reality in which the virtual reality is embedded. This goes beyond a realistic representation of reality: an indistinguishable representation or creation is pursued.

Virtual Art is an interesting study in which immersion and immediacy are placed in the history of illusionist pictorial representation. Although this again points towards the role of media in pursuing immersion, it is still unclear what exactly happens when the observer experiences it, except for being under what Grau terms ‘unconscious illusion’. This notion remains quite vague in the end. The focus on media to represent, but also to its hiding itself from the observer, leads us to the question of the importance of the medium. Is a medium, or even a representation needed for immersion to occur? Murray did also seem to entail a tension between seeing in new media and technology a potency to achieve immersion, but also seemed to suggest an important role for imagination. The preceding question will be taken up later. In the next post we will look at Ryan’s explanation of immersion and how to achieve it.

1 A more comprehensive philosophy of the function of art can be found in Arthur C. Danto’s The Death of Art, heavily influenced by Hegel’s End of Art-thesis.

EDIT: Jacob van der Linden corrected me on note 1: It should have read Arthur C Danto’s Transfiguration of the commonplace. Thanks Jacob.

2 Faux terrain is used in panoramic paintings. It realizes a smooth transition from the painting to its surroundings, for instance by placing characters from the fictional world of the painting in the real world in which the painting is located.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

For people interested in videogames, The King of Kong might be a good documentary to watch. On the one hand, its fun to watch, but on the other hand its rather sad. I am actually not that into videogames, but I enjoyed it anyway.

From IMDB: In the early 1980s, legendary Billy Mitchell set a Donkey Kong record that stood for almost 25 years. This documentary follows the assault on the record by Steve Wiebe, an earnest teacher from Washington who took up the game while unemployed. The top scores are monitored by a cadre of players and fans associated with Walter Day, an Iowan who runs Funspot, an annual tournament. Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record in public at Funspot, and Mitchell promptly mails a controversial video tape of himself setting a new record. So Wiebe travels to Florida hoping Mitchell will face him for the 2007 Guinness World Records. Will the mind-game-playing Mitchell engage; who will end up holding the record?

See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0923752/ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMJZ-_bJKdI.

The King of Kong

Arcade at Mediamatic

Last saturday I went to the Arcade-exhibition at Mediamatic. You can play all kinds of old arcadegames there. The games range from Pong to Mortal Kombat. Check it out at http://www.mediamatic.net/page/166500/en.

For more Arcade-events (workshops, lectures etc.) at Mediamatic, check http://www.mediamatic.net/page/170862/en.
Arcade at Mediamatic