June 17, 2010

Challenges of Immersion

Posted in Musings, SecondLife, social at 10:33 am by zhaewry

Challenges of Immersion

A major part of Second Life’s value is immersion.  Second Life is at its most compelling when users fully enter the virtual world as participants engaging the space, not observers visiting it. This is not to revisit the false dichotomy of augmentation and immersion. It is almost impossible to log on to Second Life and not immerse to some degree. The fundamental metaphor is that you are experiencing a place – that you are acting within a world. Rather the point is that, Virtual Worlds are fundamentally different from the “web” and this poses a deep challenge when you want to drive adoption of virtual spaces.

Immersion consists of several facets. Each facet poses challenges for wide scale adoption of the technology. This post is an attempt to explore several facets of the immersive online experience, contrast it with the existing web, and examine the implications for broader adoption of virtual worlds. This post focuses on Second Life, but I think the arguments apply more generally.

Traditional web experiences

The traditional web experience is different from the experience of visiting a virtual world.  The experience is singular, asynchronous and interstitial.  Briefly:


Reading a web page, including most social media web pages is a singular experience. A user reads the page, possibly posts comments on some of its content and moves on. Videos and Songs are equally experienced without reference to other users. It is uncommon for most web sites to expose awareness of other people who are looking at the same web page, let alone provide a way to speak to them directly. A user may be directed to a song, or video from a social media tool, they may comment on it, and they may read their friend’s comments, but they do so in isolation.


Facebook, Twitter, blog comments. Even in purely social media web sites, the pattern of interaction is largely asynchronous. Joe posts a picture on his Facebook wall. Two of his friends comment. A third leaves a link to a funny blog post related to the picture. There is genuine interaction, but it is very asynchronous.  It does not depend on two or more people being logged on at the same time.

Interstitial Experiences
The singular, asynchronous nature of many web interactions makes them perfect interstitial activities.  You have a moment, you peek at Facebook. You stand in line waiting to order coffee, you update twitter. You take a pause on vacation and upload a photograph. Your friends come along, add comments and feedback, and you reply when you have a moment.
Most web pages and applications require little context, little planning and little time. You hop on when you have a moment, and spend it on facebook. You plant a row of crops on FarmVillle, spend energy in Mafia wars, or reply to a clever comment.
Click and Type

The most common things one does on the web is click or type. Facebook, Twitter, a blog comment, a moment of casual play in Mafia Wars. All of these require little more than clicking on links, colorful icons, or entering simple text into a text field. Adding a picture requires slightly more savvy, although built in apps on smart phones are quickly turning this into a click and tap operation.

The Challenges of Immersion

Contrast the web page based experience with a virtual world interaction. You can simply log on and wander around Second Life on your own, admiring the impressive builds. You can explore in solitary splendor, shop happily. You can (and many do) build quietly on their own. But all of these miss much of the true power of the space. Second Life comes alive when multiple people interact in the immersed space.

The challenge of Synchrony

If you wish to share an event with someone in Second Life, you both need to logon at the same time. If you wish to attend a live music event, you need to log on when the musician is streaming. This is intrinsic to the shared experience. It is at once one of the greatest powers of Second Life, and one of its greatest limitations. Virtual worlds allow people scattered across the globe to share an event. Sharing both an and the other peoeple’s presence is one of the fundamental things Second Life does. The singular, and synchronous nature inherent in such an experience is one of the major challenges for Second Life’s broader adoption.

The challenge of contiguous time

Synchrony not only imposes the requirement of scheduling your time, it imposes the challenge of sharing blocks of time. Live music doesn’t pause when the phone rings. A conversation with several other residents doesn’t sit, frozen in time, while you put the kids to bed. Many immersive experiences require relatively focused, uninterrupted time in order to enjoy them.

Contagious time is a challenge in common with most immersive experiences. World or Warcraft is hard to play in 5 minute bites. You can watch a movie in smaller chunks than its full length, but fragmenting the viewing experience weakens the power of the medium.

Non Interstitial Use

The Synchronous and contagious nature of shared interaction are antithetical to interstitial interaction. This is Second Life’s biggest strength and largest challenge. Popping in to the world for five minutes is not an attractive model when events run an hour or more. Popping in when you happen to have free time, you’re dependent on an interesting thing happening at the time you pop in, and for a period of time roughly in line with your casual availability

The challenge of Richness

While strictly speaking, Second Life is click and type, the complexity of installing the client, and managing dressing, puppeteering and navigating an avatar is substantially higher than that of merely clicking a link and adding a 10 word status or sharing a funny youtube video.

Second life asks users to install a complex client which works best if the users both update their graphics drivers, and often tweak their settings. Once they have installed the client, they are confronted with an array of tasks, from dressing, to pupeterring an avatar, to teleporting around the grid. While the second life client (In all of its manifestations) is not a paragon of good user interface design, the major challenge is at least as much the set of tasks rather than any specific user interface issues. When you look at comparable game and virtual world viewers from equally rich environments, similar amounts of complexity are thrown at users.

Managing the challenges of immersion

Engaging in an immersive shared experience is fundamentally different than interacting with the web. Linden Lab needs to understand this, and account for it when looking at how to grow beyond early adopters. You can’t turn your back on immersion.  Immersion is a key part of the experience. You can’t remove the challenges by eliminating the core features of the experience. I think you instead must look at each challenge and ask, how can I build a bridge between mainstream experience today, and the immersive world.

You cannot remove the set of tasks required to navigate a rich experience. You can let the tools and capabilities unfold in a way which eases the user’s entry into the space.

You cannot remove the synchronous nature of the immersive experience, but you have to make it easy for people to find things that are interesting when they enter the space. The first hour, needs to connect potential users to what is happening in Second Life right then. The user experience needs to make it trivial for people to find events, needs to make it easy for them to go to those events, and needs to help them share the excitement of events with thier friends.

You cannot eliminate the challenge of contiguous time. Indeed, the fact that five minutes doesn’t let you do much *in* second life is a basic fact of immersion. As a world, a place, five minutes just isn’t time enough to engage in much activity. This, is, I think, a hint. What *could* you do with five minutes? What interstitial things could people do, possibly with ever appearing as an avatar which would help them connect more deeply to the space.

Food for thought. Answer some of these challenges, in ways which do not reject the core value of a shared, immersive experience and you may drive mainstream adoption. Ignore them at your peril. Ignore the connection between your unique value and these challenges and risk destroying that value in the attempt to reach for more users.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mal Burns, ZhaEwry. ZhaEwry said: shares I've blogged: http://tinyurl.com/2d72brm (Challenges of Immersion) — Serious thoughts for Linden and … http://plurk.com/p/5tun9l […]

  2. Troy said,

    I was at the doctor’s office today. I brought a book to read while I waited. I got totally immersed in the book. I was *there*, with the characters, in a three-dimensional world (the only kind of world the human brain is good at imagining).

    The book text could have been rendered inside a web browser, or on an iPad, or written in paint on the side of a brick. That’s irrelevant (so long as I can read it).

    A group of kids can get immersed in the same story-world together at the library’s Story Hour.

    Immersion: It’s all in your head.

  3. […] Life is an immersive, creative experience. Linden Lab needs to look at projects which enhance the core strengths of the experience, and […]

  4. Really good read!

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