Past President’s Column: Virtual Reality: It Is About the Experience, Not the Immersion

Jerri Lynn Hogg

Jerri Lynn Hogg

Jerri Lynn Hogg, PhD

The Earth is alive with energy. That’s both a metaphor and a scientific fact: just as all life, learning, and activity depends on energy from the environment, the planet itself carries an electrical potential, and researchers say that connecting to it seems to convey both physiological and psychological benefits.

Chevalier, Sinatra, Oschman, Sokal, and Sokal (2012) reviewed research that suggested that “earthing” or “grounding” oneself through physical contact with the earth – such as walking barefoot – provided health benefits through the transfer of electrons between the body and the planet. Benefits included reduction in chronic pain, moderation in heart rate variability, improved skin conductivity, and changes in brain activity as measured by EEG. Earlier, Sokal and Sokal (2011) had found that earthing influences physiological processes and may take a primary role in regulation of the endocrine and nervous systems.

How does that relate to virtual reality?

It may be that VR needs to be grounded too. Just as contact with the earth may help mediate physical and mental health, reconnecting virtual reality with the realities of human physiology and psychology may be key to maximizing its ability to create a fully immersive sense of “being there,” wherever “there” may be. To accomplish that feat, virtual reality needs to do more than just do visuals well: it needs to address multiple senses to create a sense of story.

Here’s how. As long as 25 years ago, aircraft manufacturers were creating fully immersive flight simulators for testing and pilot training. Aviators sat in real-world cockpits under domes that created a full 180-degree environment, upon which computers projected images of skies, clouds, mountains, and even other airplanes. Some fighter aircraft pilots became so transported that they screamed when their planes were shot down.

These system developers seem to have applied an intuitive understanding of findings of VR research that would come much later: the more the virtual reality connects with “ground truth” through multiple human senses, the more immersive the experience it creates. For example, just this year, Cummings and Bailenson (2016) found that while visual and auditory content created an impactful experience, features such as user-tracking, stereoscopic visuals, and wider field of view made the experience even richer. This can be illustrated by comparing today’s VR headsets and earlier flight simulation domes; in the former headsets, goggles, and Google Cardboard are eminently more affordable for consumers and academia, the military trainers with real cockpit environments, horizon-to-horizon visuals, and no artificial headsets created a greater degree of immersion. And one would assume that greater immersion creates a greater sense of presence.

In VR, presence is the physiological sense of “being there,” to the point where you scream when your virtual plane blows up. It develops best when the brain believes the objects and avatars created by VR technology are just as “real” as real-world objects. Making the virtual world feel real seems to require greater fidelity of the input with human senses. It may be possible to create an entertaining VR application with little more than a smartphone app and some sound, but to create a true virtual experience requires technology that leverages our knowledge of how multiple senses inform the brain’s construction of reality.

Put another way, involvement of multiple senses in the ways they are built to work helps create a story and it’s well established that stories are more transportative than are disjointed bits of input. We know that the brain tracks data from the environment including physical location, time, and auditory space. The hippocampus, along with neural tissue, creates mental maps of this information and organizes it in a way that creates meaning. Recently, Tavares (2016) demonstrated that EEG activity in the hippocampus is linked to movement through social space, showing that the brain maps social relationships as well as relationships between objects in the environment. Likewise, Sanders (2016) showed that sound and sight are so intimately connected that the auditory cortex of lip-readers lights up when they watched silent lip movements and tried to comprehend the story they were telling.

For virtual reality to create a truly transporting experience, developers must take advantage of this knowledge to create media that addresses each of these mental modalities. They should borrow a page from the Gestalt school of psychology and apply a degree of holism to ensure that VR messages are integrated into a complementary whole that tells a story, not just a set of related, but discrete stimuli. Doing so helps to create a human experience that transcends the limitations of computer-generated atmospherics and results in a feeling of “being there” rather than merely “seeing there.”

In conclusion, with due respect to Marshall McLuhan, it seems that with virtual reality the medium can never be the message. In VR, the medium frames the message, but humans inherently think in stories. Just as in real reality, our minds inevitably seek to find meaning by translating information into a linear causal experience. Virtual reality strives to create presence, which is strongest when stimuli are delivered to multiple senses in fidelity with real-world experience. Integrating this psychological science into VR solutions is important and challenging to developers because it requires solving technical challenges such as capturing VR on film.


Cummings, J., & Bailenson, J. (2016).  How immersive is enough?  A meta-analysis of the effect of immersive technology on user presence.  Media Psychology, 19, 272-309. DOI:  10.1080/15213269.2015.1015740.

Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2011). Earthing the human body influences physiologic processes. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17, 301-308.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.