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  • Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory 1
  • Marie-Laure Ryan (bio)

Few of us have actually donned a 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; VR is basically a computer technology; all forms of representation create a VR experience; VR challenges the distinction fiction-reality; VR is the triumph of fiction over reality.

We may have to wait until the next millennium to see whether these promises and threats will be materialized, but since VR technology 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 and to explore its implications for literary theory and the question of textuality. [End Page 110]

The Two Components of VR

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” (11). 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 : “A virtual reality is defined as a real or simulated environment in which the perceiver experiences telepresence” (Steuer 76). Telepresence relates to presence as virtual reality relates to reality :

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.


Analyzing the dimensions of telepresence, Steuer (78) proposes a combination of factors that come very close to Pimentel and Texeira’s formula: the sense of telepresence is a function of the vividness of the representation—which leads to immersion—and of interactive involvement with the electronic display.

As a literary theorist, I am primarily interested in the two components of the VR experience as a novel way to describe the types of reader response that may be elicited by a literary text. I propose therefore to transfer the notions of immersion and interactivity from the technological to the literary domain and to discuss the conditions of their textual implementation. While interactivity has been extolled by postmodern theory as the triumph of its own aesthetic ideals of a creative reader, an open text, and a ludic relation to language, immersion has been either ignored or dismissed as the holdover of a now-discredited aesthetics of illusion that subordinates language to its referent, and ignores its power of configuration over the reality it is supposed to represent. Through this comparative study of the immersive and interactive potential of literature and VR technology...