Technology as extensions of our selves – but what’s actually extending?

Jim Makes a Frittata in His New Frittata Pan
Jim Makes a Frittata in His New Frittata Pan

Some initial thoughts on human-computer interaction after several weeks of intense literature review on ‘virtual embodiment’.

I was eating a frittata the other day – if you don’t know what a frittata is, that’s OK, doesn’t matter to get the idea (but it’s that thing up there in the picture).

Anyway, while I was taking the last piece from the oven casserole (which is made out of material that feels like porcelain or something), I used a knife to gently scratch some crispy cheese from the corners of the pan. A sudden, annoyingly simple idea came to me: with the stainless steel dinner knife, I was able to feel the material of the casserole, and judge from that if I would scratch and ruin it or not.

While thinking of this, I also tried the pan surface with my fingers. The feeling I got from that pan was basically the same as with the dinner knife.

Now, this might feel rather arbitrary and useless pondering of everyday life, but from such little realisations often come the most interesting things. We are so used to such experiences without thinking how they occur to us that we don’t always think how they might take place in other contexts, such as in using virtual environments.

If I am able to get the feeling of a material or a quality through another object, such as the feeling of a frittata pan through a dinner knife (similarly perhaps how a tennis player experiences a ball through a tennis racquet or a crane operator feels a crate through the crane), what various things do I get a feeling of through interactive media input-output technology? It seems that authors and others like to jump on board with McLuhan’s (1964) term ‘an extension’, but do we extend our thinking beyond that term (which itself is a tool of language to communicate about these matters)? What actually does extend?

So, what different matters or qualities might get extended through control devices such as game controllers? As a gamer, I can reflect that for example in Halo games, different weapons and vehicles feel different, and I prefer some over others – I loved the double needler when it was available. Nothing could give more satisfaction than blowing someone away with them with a huge explosion.

At the same time, interactive media extends our sense of social presence. Now, this is a different matter altogether. Technology gives us the possibility to see another person in the form of a virtual embodiment, an avatar. How the avatar looks like, what it does and how it communicates transmits us through a screen that there is actually someone there. It extends social interaction, and the social interaction is as real as it is in “the real”. The growing normality of this experience is blurring the fact how unique that is in the evolution of human-technology interaction.

As a sub note, I am developing a rather big issue with terms such as virtual and real. I feel Rob Shields (2002) has done a nice job in trying to get us out from this definition muddle. If we continue to talk about ‘virtual’ as something less real than the concrete world around us (which also psychologically and philosophically is very much debatable) we are basically saying virtual experiences are not real. This would mean that our experiences in various virtual worlds, such as the long grinding sessions in WoW or Borderlands never happened. I am sure no reasonable person would give such a comment. So why do we continue saying experiences such as social interaction in virtual contexts are somehow less than face to face? Based on some of the studies I have examined, for some users some forms of experience can be even be more.

Thinking such things tend to gather sort of blank stares and comments like “well, that is very philosophical, but…”. I disagree with the “it is so philosophical” (whatever it might mean for some people to say this). I think it is rather pragmatic to use your head to try to see what these experiences really truly mean instead of jumping on the technology hype or the luddite movement. It lifts the veil over the novelty of emerging technologies and sort of re-focuses thinking to how we actually interact with objects and other people.

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