Affordances in Virtual Immersive Environments (or, When is a Chair not a Chair?)

June 23, 2010

chairA few months back, I interviewed Chuck Hamilton about the way Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) are used at IBM. One of the concepts that Chuck introduced me to was the idea of “affordances,” and how they change in VIEs. According to our old friend Wikipedia, an affordance is “a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action.” The term doesn’t really have anything to do with VIEs on its own, although the concept of affordances is frequently used in describing the way people interact with computers.

Affordances become interesting in VIEs because VIEs “warp” the common way we use affordances. For example, what are the affordances of a chair? Well, it can be used for sitting, for decoration, for standing on to change a lightbulb… you get the idea, I could go on and on. But in a VIE, what is a chair? For sitting on, sure… but your avatar never gets tired, so you never really need to sit. Nor do you have to change light bulbs (and if you did, odds are you could fly up and do it).

Or a roof. What are the affordances of a roof? It keeps out cold, rain, snow, burglars, etc. But what if you lived in a world where there was no weather (unless you wanted it)? Would you need a roof at all?

But if you’ve spent any time in a VIE, you know that we typically recreate the affordances of the physical world. There are a lot of good reasons for this; one of the reasons we have VIEs at all is so we can recreate some of the emotions and interpersonal effects we get in real life. But, of course, there are some things we can leave out: roofs are purely aesthetic; and we have drinks in VIEs only to recreate the conviviality of happy hour, not because we’re thirsty.

For VIEs in learning, we often recreate classrooms—which is controversial to a lot of people. Some like the classrooms, because it recreates the affordances of the real world. Others (myself included) question why you would simply recreate classrooms. Sure, we want to create environments for people to learn. But we aren’t bound by the affordances of the real world. In VIEs we can learn anywhere. And what’s the point of creating a 3D space if you don’t use all three dimensions?

Tony O’Driscoll and Karl Kapp talk about The Seven Sensibilities of VIEs in their book, Learning in 3D:

  1. The Sense of Self
  2. The Death of Distance
  3. The Power of Presence
  4. The Sense of Space
  5. The Capability to Co-Create
  6. The Pervasiveness of Practice
  7. The Enrichment of Experience

Tony does a great job of explaining it all in the video below. Watch and enjoy!

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