Virtual Reality as a Communication System
Frank Biocca University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Mark R. Levy University of Maryland
The "MEDIA"? You often read or hear reference to this mammoth, wired, humming beast. But this popular usage of the word "media" can be misleading. The phrase is sometimes used to mean not just the technological tool used to communicate (e.g., clay or video tape) but also the content of the medium (e.g., nightly news, "violent" drama) and organizations supporting the medium (e.g., the networks, cable companies, or "the press"). The term media even encompasses the whole social and cultural system built around transmission channels or interfaces like television. The problem: the term conflates too many elements.
The term virtual reality (VR) has similar problems. People frequently jump between different levels of the technology, as they discuss its prospects. Some are talking about a piece of the interface hardware (e.g., head-mounted displays), an application (e.g., medical imaging), a VR industry (e.g., the VR entertainment industry), or the cultural environment emerging around the use of VR technologies (e.g., cyberfiction, cyberspace, cyberpunks, etc.). The phrase, virtual reality, increasingly refers not to a piece of technology but to an emerging communication system.
What is a communication system? Fig. 2.1 helps illustrate the basic elements of such a system. A communication system is composed of a communication interface, transmission channels, and organizational infrastructures. Each component is actually a subsystem with its own dynamics and actors. We can use Fig. 2.1 to discuss some of the issues facing the emergence of VR as a communication system, and to give an overview of