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  • Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory
  • Marie-Laure Ryan

Few of us have actually donned an HMD (head-mounted display) and DGs (data-gloves), and entered a computer-generated, three-dimensional landscape in which all of our wishes can be fulfilled: wishes such as experiencing an expansion of our physical and sensory powers; getting out of the body and seeing ourselves from the outside; adopting a new identity; apprehending immaterial objects with most of our senses, including touch; being able to modify the environment through either verbal commands or physical gestures; seeing creative thoughts instantly realized without going through the process of having them physically materialized. Yet despite the fact that virtual reality as described above is still largely science-fiction, still largely what it is called —a virtual reality—there is hardly anybody who does not have a passionate opinion about the technology: some day VR will replace reality; VR will never replace reality; VR challenges the concept of reality; VR will enable us to rediscover and explore reality; VR is a safe substitute to drugs and sex; VR is pleasure without risk and therefore immoral; VR will enhance the mind, leading mankind to new powers; VR is addictive and will enslave us; VR is a radically new experience; VR is as old as Paleolithic art.

This flowering of opinions is fanned by the rhetoric of the gurus of the technology:

Worldwide, VR is happening in protected pockets of technology; inside giants corporations, universities, and small entrepreneurial start-ups; in Berlin and North Carolina; covering Japan and especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. . . . A rare excitement is in the air, an excitement that comes from breaking through to something new. Computers are about to take the next big step—out of the lab and into the street—and the street can’t wait.

(Pimentel and Texeira, 7)

This sense of anticipation permeates all books about virtual reality. They are less concerned with what has been achieved so far than with what will be available in the (we hope or fear) very near future. We may have to wait until the year 2000 to see VR become an important part of our lives, but since it is depicted so realistically by its prophets, and since it exists very much in the popular imagination, we don’t have to wait that long to submit the claims of its developers to a critical investigation. In this paper I propose to analyze VR as a semiotic phenomenon, to place it within the context of contemporary culture and to explore its theoretical implications.

My point of departure is this definition by Pimentel and Texeira:

In general, the term virtual reality refers to an immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer.


While “computer generated” accounts for the virtual character of the data, “immersive” and “interactive” explain what makes the computer-assisted experience an experience of reality. To apprehend a world as real is to feel surrounded by it, to be able to interact physically with it, and to have the power to modify this environment. The conjunction of immersion and interactivity leads to an effect known as telepresence:

Telepresence is the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment. . . . This [mediated environment] can be either a temporally or spatially distant real environment . . . or an animated but nonexistent virtual world synthesized by a computer.

(Steuer 76)

Far from being restricted to VR, the features of immersion and interactivity can be regarded as the cornerstones of a general theory of representation and communication. The purpose of this paper is to explore the problematics of their textual implementation and to assess their significance for contemporary literary theory.


Since immersion depends on the vividness of the display, its factors are closely related to the devices that lead to realism in representation. A factor that comes immediately to mind is the projection of a three-dimensional picture. The introduction of perspective in painting took a first step toward immersion by creating a sense of depth that integrated the spectator into the pictorial space. But because the medium of painting simulates depth on a flat surface the...

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