Realism vs. abstraction

Author: Deborah Barreau

One of the goals of virtual reality is to create engaging, immersive environments that provide a sense of being in another place. Development efforts often tend toward establishing a sense of realism in these environments by combining high-resolution, complex graphics enhanced by head-mounted displays with stereoscopic vision, 3D sound, and the capability to manipulate objects and to navigate within the environment. However, the computer power required to create these realistic worlds is enormous and the paraphenalia required to function in such environments can be distracting and disorienting for users. Some researchers suggest that abstraction can be as effective as realism in modeling engaging, immersive worlds.

While much effort has focused on technologies to enhance the sense of realism in virtual environments, many successful applications employ more abstract techniques. An example of the latter is decreasing realism in flight simulators by generating checkerboard patterns over representations of the ocean to provide pilots with perspective cues not otherwise present. In his research at Stanford University, Mark Bolas discovered that while realistic environments help to engage the user and create a sense of being there, greater abstraction engages the user's senses and imagination to create a greater sense of being elsewhere, "in" the world created.

Below are descriptions of some methods for creating realistic worlds to engage the user as participant.

Projected reality

Projected reality conveys a sense of presence by projecting an image of the individual onto a screen. The individual is unencumbered by head-mounted displays, earphones, datagloves, or other paraphenalia and interacts only with the projected image. This technique was developed by Myron Krueger, and was realized in his VIDEOPLACE, where individuals could interact with the environment, with objects such as an imaginary "critter," or with each other. This projected, artificial reality is engaging and playful, although the sense of realism may be less than for virtual reality techniques.

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Augmented reality

Augmented reality makes it possible to project data, diagrams, animation, or video onto transparent glasses to provide information to people who need to work simultaneously in the real world and to access additional data. Although this technology has been slow to develop, future applications may include projection of diagrams of machine parts or instruction manuals on goggles to assist mechanics while making repairs on the actual machine.

Virtual reality and telepresence

Virtual reality is the immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer that provides the user with the sensation of being totally immersed in the environment. It usually includes technologies such as video cameras, microphones, head-mounted displays, and other technologies to engage all the senses. Telepresence is a form of virtual reality which gives the participant a sense of being in another place.


Human factors studies, including human-computer interaction, psychology, and education can reveal much about the importance of realism versus abstraction in virtual environments. It has been demonstrated that abstraction can reduce and simplify information presented to a pilot in flight training, allowing him or her to focus on the most critical elements. Abstraction also allows us to perceive ideas and processes for which there is no physical model or representation. Brenda Laurel views virtual worlds as the "antithesis of realism," as a place for imagination and play. Her background in theater has led her to virtual reality as a place where people can expand their capacities and skills.

Greater realism may be necessary for applications such as in medicine or aviation which require precise rendering to simulate real, life-threatening situations. However, while computer graphics can render realistic images, little progress has been made toward incorporating weight and mass for example in virtual environment interactions. Because of these limitations, Frederick Brooks cautions that there is an important distinction between realism and truthfulness - that it is possible, in a world which appears so life- like, to teach things that are not so [Rheingold, 1991] technical.


[Rheingold, 1991]. Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, 1991.

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Human Interface Technology Laboratory