As the gap between social experience and the online world narrows, immersive technologies are becoming the next frontier in the digital media landscape. Immersive technology refers to digital media and experiences that aim to fully engage users by enveloping them in a simulated environment, such as an interactive simulation or virtual world. Their goal is to provide a more intuitive interaction with digital content. Immersive media encompasses social video games, virtual worlds, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and haptic devices. It also includes the concept widely referred to as “the metaverse,” a vision of interconnected virtual worlds where individuals can create and participate in a virtual life that is as rich and nuanced as their real-world identity.
Traditional social media is losing the competition for users’ time against new immersive experiences. Platforms like Instagram engage users for an average of 30 minutes throughout the day, while the average Roblox player logs on for over 2.5 hours. Young users are no longer content with scrolling endlessly through social media feeds, and are instead choosing to spend time gaming on interactive platforms. With 65 million users, Roblox has become as lively as any social media feed.
Immersive forms of media, such as virtual reality simulations, omnidirectional 360◦ videos, and 3D movies, possess especially high levels of vividness and are intended to enable perceptions of interactivity. The psychological feeling of spatial presence might explain why immersive media are believed to be especially captivating and enjoyable, thus accounting for their growing popularity. These lifelike forms of media can enhance the perception of actually being in the depicted digital environment, thus creating the illusion of non-mediation, which is commonly referred to as telepresence, physical presence, or spatial presence.
Immersive technologies have the potential to transform nearly every facet of our life, including how we communicate, collaborate, work, play and learn. They can bridge geographic gaps, allowing users to share a virtual space and have a conversation regardless of physical distance, or explore social experiences created by others such as watching movies, and attending concerts or fashion shows.
Immersive technologies also help to overcome the barrier of authenticity. When two or more people share a virtual space with realistic avatars and audio, they can have interactions that are more like those experienced when in person. Beyond socializing, immersive technologies can also provide solutions to everyday challenges at individual and community levels. Around the world, governments, urban planners, engineers, and architects are collaboratively strategizing and leveraging new-age, digital technologies to create smart cities. Smart cities incorporate sensors, cameras, and actuators while building new infrastructure. With the availability of high-speed, consistent network connectivity, residents may also be given an opportunity to provide suggestions as to how cities can be better transformed and developed, and can use services that eliminate day-to-day challenges. For example, AR-based navigation apps use the phone camera to get information on the user’s location, augment navigational content on the mobile display, and help them navigate while they walk or drive. AR tools can also provide support for disaster relief, providing in depth location information of stranded persons or simulating rescue training with interactive visual effects. In medical services, AR can help bridge communication gaps between doctors and patients, so as to better understand their conditions. In education, interactive lessons utilizing AR can help to increase knowledge retention for students. With the help of VR, city planners can effectively check whether the built model fits the existing infrastructural constraints and space
Despite the increasing prevalence and capabilities of immersive technologies, we are still ways away from their global adaptation. A society or economy’s readiness to adopt and effectively utilize immersive technologies is contingent on several factors, like infrastructure, availability of network connection, and levels of investment in emerging technologies. Likewise, many users may not be ready to embrace immersive experiences or possess the digital skills to navigate them effectively, and governments may not have adequate regulatory frameworks in place to promote safe deployment and usage. According to the Network Readiness Index 2022, in Europe, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden emerge as the global leaders in the investment in and adoption of emerging technologies. When it comes to regulation, Luxembourg and Finland exhibit a high-quality regulatory environment, supported by strong legal frameworks for emerging technologies. While Northern European economies have a track record of performing well in the areas of digital skilling and technology governance, economies in Southern and Eastern Europe continue to lag behind the rest of the continent in network readiness, especially when it comes to investment in and adoption of emerging technologies.
As a result, the regulation and acceptance of immersive technologies remains an area for improvement in the coming years. However, there are bright spots emerging. For example, Estonia, a trailblazer in digital innovation, ranks 6th in Governance and 3rd in Trust. These developments have been crucial towards achieving global leadership in e-participation, and setting an example when it comes to embracing emerging technologies.
Virtual worlds impact the way we socialize, learn and work, bringing both opportunities and risks that need to be addressed. Thus, many nations and regions have begun to focus on developing regulatory frameworks and strategies that address concerns around privacy and safety. For example, the EU has adopted a new Web 4.0 strategy to steer the next technological transition and ensure an open, secure, trustworthy, fair and inclusive digital environment for EU citizens, businesses and public administrations. The new strategy aims to ensure that Web 4.0 and virtual worlds reflect EU values and principles, where people’s rights are safeguarded and where European businesses can thrive. Further, it encourages governments to leverage the opportunities virtual worlds can offer, such as developing virtual public services and investing in smart city initiatives. Such strategies are key steps towards developing global standards for open and interoperable virtual worlds and Web 4.0.
Ioanna Georgia Eskiadi is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, researching new emerging technologies, communication and journalism. She holds a Master of Arts in Risk Communication and Crisis Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, Media, and Communication from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.