Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality

By Frank Biocca; Mark R. Levy | Go to book overview

3 Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence

Jonathan Steuer Stanford University

Virtual reality (VR) has typically been portrayed as a medium, like telephone or television. This new medium is typically defined in terms of a particular collection of technological hardware, including computers, head- mounted displays, headphones, and motion-sensing gloves. The focus of virtual reality is thus technological, rather than experiential; the locus of virtual reality is a collection of machines.1 Such a concept is useful to producers of VR-related hardware. However, for communication researchers, policymakers, software developers, or media consumers, a device- driven definition of virtual reality is unacceptable: It fails to provide any insight into the processes or effects of using these systems, fails to provide a conceptual framework from which to make regulatory decisions, fails to provide an aesthetic from which to create media products, and fails to provide a method for consumers to rely on their experiences with other media in understanding the nature of virtual reality.

Theoretically, these inadequacies are manifest in three ways. First, a technology-based view suggests that the most salient feature in recognizing a "VR system" is the presence or absence of the requisite hardware.2 In

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1
This chapter presumes broad definitions of technology and media, such as those given by Beniger ( 1986, p. 9), who defined technology as "any intentional extension of a natural process, that is, processing of matter, energy, and information that characterizes all living systems," and McLuhan ( 1964, p. 21), who defined a medium as any "extension of man."
2
See Nass and Mason ( 1990) for an in-depth discussion of the practical and theoretical limitations of object-centered views of technology, and of the importance of variable-based strategies in overcoming these limitations.

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