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In the context of virtual environments, one of the words I keep hearing over and over is ‘immersion’. In more than half of cases, what people mean when they say ‘immersion’ is actually ‘immediacy’.

Immersion itself has about a dozen definitions, but excluding the ones associated with astronomy, or fluid, the rest are all about attention, focus and concentration. I’ve talked about that before.

Immersion’s important. Without it, most things are a flop, from movies to business meetings. If something isn’t holding your attention, you’re probably neither getting much out of it, nor putting much into it.

More importantly though, is that immersion is the key to other things. It’s an absolute requirement for augmentation (for the reasons above), and without it you can’t have immediacy. Immediacy technically means directness, but its a whole lot more than that.

Forgot you were watching a film because you were swept up in it? That’s immediacy. Feel like you have some sort of connection to a place or set of events through a live television broadcast? That’s immediacy. Feel like you’re present in a game or a virtual environment? That’s immediacy.

Immediacy is the perfection, or erasure, of the gap between signifier and signified, such that a representation is perceived to be the thing itself. It is a consequence of what Kenneth Burke calls “naive verbal realism” whereby the symbol is simply perceived to be a window to the real. In Remediation, immediacy (or transparent immediacy) is defined as a “style of visual representation whose goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium (canvas, photographic film, cinema, and so on) and believe that he is in the presence of the objects of representation” (Bolter and Grusin 272-73).[*]

Breaking the fourth wall, or being out-of-character, or having a strong or unavoidable sense of the medium or the user-interface? That’s hypermediacy.

Of course immediacy can shatter if hypermediacy creeps in, or if immersion should be broken. Most of the time that we talk about immersion being broken, though, immersion may be intact, and what has broken is immediacy.

And that’s why it’s so confusing. More than half the time, we say one thing and mean something else, but it isn’t always entirely clear what is being talked about.

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