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Psychological Relativism – perspectives on reality/virtuality

Yesterday, in a talk at The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds (FCVW) conference, Jim Blascovich spoke about reality, virtuality, and our perceptions hereof. Blascovich made some interesting and provocative claims about reality, starting with the question: “What is reality?” and answering it by saying: “No one knows!” Blascovich then presented a photo of the Earth and a photo from SL, and asked are they both real? Yes! Are they both virtual? Yes!

Um, so at first glance this may seem confusing, but as far as I understood it Blascovich’ point was that our perceptions (of anything) are idiosyncratic hallucinations, and we see/perceive things that are not there and things that cannot be there – the human brain adapts and “right things” (cf. the work of George Stratton on perceptual adaptation). Together with Cade McCall, Blascovich explains this in a paper on “Attitudes in Virtual Reality“:

“In contrast to the continuing struggle and debate among interested scholars over the hard consciousness problem, many scholars from many fields concerned with the question, “What is reality?” agree that what people think of as reality is an hallucination; that is, a cognitive construction. Together with religious gurus and mystics, philosophers (Huxley, 1954) and experimental psychologists (e.g., Shepard, 1984), maintain that perceptions are invariably idiosyncratic hallucinations, albeit often assumed and treated as collective. (Blascovich & McCall, 2009, p. 3 – my emphasis)”

I don’t know … I think this is difficult to comprehend, and I couldn’t help but think about Plato and his cave-analogy. Based on a question from the twitter-audience, I did get the impression that Blascovich recognizes the empirical world (our Earth) as real though; because he went on to make the distinction between “grounded reality” and “virtual reality”. However, the tricky part is that what we consider “real” or “virtual” depends on our individual perspectives, and this is referred to as the principle of psychological relativism:

“Analogous to Einstein’s theory of special relativity regarding time and space, psychological relativity theory states that what is mentally processed (i.e., perceived or thought of) as real and what is mentally processed (and thought of) as not real (i.e., virtual) depends on one’s point of view. People contrast a particular “grounded reality”— what they believe to be the natural or physical world—with other realities they perceive—what at times they believe to be imaginary or “virtual” worlds. However, what is thought to be grounded reality and what is thought to be virtual reality is often muddled or even reversed. (Blascovich & McCall, 2009, p. 4 – my emphasis)”

While I really appreciate Blascovich’ emphasis on “context” as being crucial to our perceptions, I think the problem with relativity is that it makes it very hard to reach consensus on anything, or to achieve “collective hallucinations” so to speak – and for many people the uncertainty of relativism is unsettling. Whenever I bring students into SL, they clearly struggle with such ontological questions, and I think the uncertainty about what is/isn’t real can become a barrier to adaptation of the medium.

Fortunately, it isn’t all completely relative. The research done by Blascovich and colleagues (not least Jeremy Bailenson – cf. Infinite Reality) shows how i.e. movement, anthropometric, and photographic variables influence our perceptions. And by studying such results, we – as VW designers/users – can accommodate different perceptions and it gives us a more informed starting point for some very interesting discussions on the ontology of VWs.

Admittedly, I’m still processing some of Blascovich’ points in terms of consequences for VWs design, and I’m not sure if it makes sense or if I can make sense of it … according to Blascovich “reality is a state of mind”, and mine sure is messy!

Without diminishing the work of Blascovich et al. I still think that one of the best explanations of “real” stems from a dialogue between a rabbit and a wise old skin horse:


SL as learning environment for Midwifery education

This is the fourth post of five describing the work of the students from the PD class, I’ve been running since December 5th, 2011 with students from the Master’s Program on ICT & Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University where the students have to do presentations in-world. Background information on the course/the presentation task can be found in this first post, and here’s the link to the second post, and the third post.  On Monday, January 23rd Team D had to present their analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment.

Team D and their focus

Team D; tomsteff, danamaia, mouritzen & Saxodane.

Just like the previous presenting teams, Team D’s members come from very different backgrounds working as College Teacher and IT-consultant, Midwife and Educational consultant, Assistant Engineer and AV-Lab consultant, and finally as Cooperate Psychologist and HR-consultant. danamaia was already familiar with some of the people behind the SLenz Virtual Birthing Unit-project, and the team decided to further investigate the use of SL as a supplement in Midwifery education leading to the following investigation question:

How can immersion facilitate Midwifery students’ learning of clinical skills and competences in a 3D-mediated learning environment?

Team D’s sandbox
To support the MIL students’ work in SL, each team was assigned a sandbox on December 9th (after they had learned the most basic SL skills), and the pictures below show the progression in team D’s sandbox:

December 17th; Team D has set up a shared media screen.

January 1st; Team D’s sandbox now only contains my building instructions …

However, a few days later on January 4th Team D’s building process has really taken off.

And a week later on January 11th, Team D’s sandbox is starting to get filled up with a nice addition of phantom walls based on transparent/green binary codes.

January 12th; Plywood here, plywood there – the basic building material of SL now seems to fill up Team D’s sandbox.

January 13th; The Matrix inspiration continues with the addition of a video-trailor for the movie.

On January, 20th part of the sandbox has been removed in the NW corner.

A closer look of the interior of Team D’s sandbox on January, 22nd.

Team D’s presentation

 Team D’s agenda and investigation question on display.

Team D’s agenda looked like this:

  • Intro
  • Historical perspective on 2D and 3D
  • The psychology of immersion
  • Learning in Plato’s cave
  • Didactic Design
  • Tour
  • Reflection/discussion
After we were welcomed in the team’s sandbox, Team C’s mouritzen gave us a brief overview their investigation question and of some influential games/systems in the field of 2D/3D VR/VE.

Posters with some of the influential games in game history,

and Cisco’s TelePresence system .

We were then asked to move up-stairs where Team D’s Saxodane literally walked us through Wirth et al.’s model of Spatial Presence that focusses on the construction of a mental “spatial situation model” as a prerequisite for a satisfactory user-experience in new media and VR-technology.

Team D’s representation of Wirth et al.’s Spatial Presence model.

By the end of Saxodane’s talk we were asked to take a step forward, the floor disappeared, and voila!:

… we were now prisoners in Team D’s Matrix/Plato-inspired cave!

In the cave, Team D’s tomsteff, made a very interesting comparison of Plato’s cave allegory, SL, and Beaudrillard’s thoughts on Simulacra and Simulation.

Plato’s cave allegory displayed on the walls in the cave – meta-meta?

Evidently, ontological questions on reality/virtuality/hyperreality come to mind when entering an environment such as SL, and tomsteff challenged us to consider what impact such issues would have in relation to learning.

Presence and learning – what’s the relationship?

Based on Qvortrup, tomsteff reflected on different kinds of knowledge forms in SL.

Next up was Team D’s own Midwife, danamaia, who gave us a nice introduction to the Midwifery-project in order to set the scene before visiting the place. The project has been well documented, and it was very interesting to hear about some of the research results, and not least how participating students had reacted to the project.

Team D’s danamaia explaining the didactic design behind The Birth Place (displayed on the walls) based on Riis’ model on the floor.

MIL11 students gathering in front of  Te Wāhi Whānau/ The Birth Place .

We were asked to take a tour and explore the premisses. The place is highly informative with many clickable objects leading to the extensive wiki and other materials.

Up-stairs danamaia explained the role-play that two students had to try based on materials from the purple pyramid.

Anina volunteered to become pregnant-in-a-click.

Even an avatar-pregnancy can be exhausting!

Anina gave the tub a try, but no luck in delivering the baby there …

With the help of “midwife”, JaneOlga Anina finally gave birth to a boy :-)

Big congrats from the cheering crowd …

Due to time constraints, we were not able to explore the role-plaing possibilities in full detail, but we did get a good impression of the potentials. After the successful birth of a new Netizen, we all went back to Team D’s sandbox, where Saxodane wrapped-up their presentation.

Saxodane presenting Team D’s final comments on SL as learning environment.

Team D has has had a strong focus on games throughout the course, and as I told them, I don’t think comparing and judging SL too much based on gaming theory/practice is appropriate. In my experience, the absence of a gameplay makes SL a very different VE – especially in terms of teaching and learning potential. Nonetheless, there were many fine elements in the team’s presentation and in their design, and once again, I think we all ended up having a very good and fun joint learning experience.

MIL students celebrating Team D’s presentation with some wine,

… and some dancing :-)


Reality – the worst g/Game ever?

Many of the presentations at the Visualization in Science and Education conference that I’m currently attending have evolved around games, simulations, and virtual worlds, and in one of today’s talks the presenter showed us this picture:

Picture from “Motivate Us Not”

In this particular talk, the “problem” with reality was linked to the complexity of the world’s many challenges, e.g.  in terms of risks we’re facing – which evidently can be quite overwhelming and most likely will cause some people to withdraw from the “real” world, and ultimately leave it to others to try and meet these challenges. However, the picture also pointed to a theme that has been recurring throughout the conference, namely why we need virtual games, worlds etc. in the first place – why not stick to (the reality of) this world? If the skeptics at this conference leave with the impression that those of us in favor of such immersive/augmented technologies want to replace Reality, then I think we have failed (and note that was not the view of the presenter).

Both I, and the colleagues I know who use these technologies in education are not trying to replace, but rather to supplement and work with mixed realities in a re-situated perspective, drawing on the best affordances from each. In another talk, the presenter distinguished between the “game” understood as software, and the “Game” understood as the social context; the community, the practice, the artifacts, and the interactions surrounding the game. I found this to be an important distinction, which could be applied to my own work, and while as an educator I also have an inherent interest in the nature and development of the software (from an instructional POV), I do believe that the context is crucial – and probably could make the difference as to whether people would use these new types of technologies to escape or improve our reality … regardless of how we choose to define it. I’m not done thinking about this, but this morning’s talks provided really good food for thought, and proved that Reality isn’t such a bad Game after all ;-)