Skip to content

Sense-making the Virtual: Reality vs Environment vs World

As part of my current obsession, I have been pondering how we (researchers, designers, practitioners) make sense of what are these technologies we are calling virtual worlds.  It will be the subject of an upcoming online dialogue I am planning (keep watching this blog for more information).

Before beginning that dialogue, I wanted to relay some thoughts I have been having on how to distinguish between three “virtual technologies”, and to have your feedback on this differentiation scheme.  The three terms I would like to discuss here are “virtual reality”, “virtual environment” and “virtual world”.  These are three terms I find are sometimes used interchangeably when discussing some or another technology.  Most recently, I recall hearing architects discussing how their professions are moving into virtual worlds, when to me it seemed what they were really discussing was the use of virtual reality and virtual environment technologies in their practice.

While I think we can agree these are three different technologies, there may be room for disagreement regarding how the definitions of these technologies converge or diverge — that is, what characteristics of the technology leads one product to be classified as one versus another.  What I offer here is how I see the three terms diverging and converging based on two dimensions, and I ask everyone reading this to offer their thoughts.

First, comparing “virtual reality” to the other two, the main commonality amongst all three appears to be the predominance of a 3D digitally rendered visual space-place (the “there” that is represented via CGI and accessible only through computer technology).  The differences appear to be on the importance of the avatar in the space-place because of the technological interface used to access and interact with the space-place.  Virtual reality uses a more immersive technology, such as head-mounted displays, to more fully integrate the person’s perceptual experience into the space-place.  A virtual environment and virtual world could be reached via a basic keyboard-mouse or handheld controller that is less immersive, and more intrusive as a filter or barrier between the person and the space-place.  Now, a virtual environment or world  could be accessed via a virtual reality interface.  But on its own, talking about virtual reality is defining the interface more than defining the space-place.

Let’s move on to comparing a virtual “environment” to a “world”.  In my view, what separates these two space-places is their level of openness to allowing people who did not design them to have control over how the space-place is represented.  By “openness” I am referring to how much and what type of controls are given to users over the interaction with and within such space-places.  This idea of openness is related to the concept of persistence, which is often applied as a defining characteristic of virtual worlds.  Thus, the key difference between a virtual world and virtual environment is the extent to which users can go into the space-place and interact therein without the designers (or originators of the space-place) being present.  For example, in a virtual world, the designers have designed the parameters of the world to permit certain types of social interaction and space-place interaction that are continuously being allowed as ongoing — in other words, the world is always “open for business”.  The more open the world, such as Second Life, the more the user has control over the visual representation of the space-place.  A virtual environment, on the other hand, has more restrictions in place as to whom can access it and when; there may be great affordances for interacting within and towards the space-place, but it is not always open for business.

In a sense, when considering this openness characteristic, we can see virtual environments and virtual worlds being on a dimension, from not open to fully open, and not at all as a dichotomy of definitionally opposed technologies.  On the other hand, virtual reality rests along a different dimension, one of immersiveness, where the interface is something that may be a perceptual barrier or enabler of immersion.

So there you have it — some ruminations I have been having on how to differentiate these technologies.  I do not know how much my current obsession, leading to this discussion, obfuscates what is being said elsewhere on this topic, or if it indeed replicates what has been said elsewhere to differentiate these technologies.  That is why I am hoping through comments to see how well my thoughts fit into the broader discussion on this topic.

And with that — what are your thoughts about my thoughts?

Posted in Blog.

Tagged with , , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.