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Inter-Personal Relations in Interactive Virtual Reality Environment: Communication Network and Role of Technology

Produced by: Dongyuan Liu


This report aims to explore that how the technologies in the interactive immersive environment as connect tools to adjust the relationships between spectators. Furthermore, when they do such things, how do the technologies build a kind of communication network for adjusting relations between audiences. In the past time, a large number of researches focused on the topic which is about the human perceptions, such as visual perception(Thomas and Glowacki), auditory perception(Wiseman et al.), and space feeling(Breyer), in the immersive environment. Those researches were almost unfolded based on the single people’s sense system. They are started from one person’s reception and turned back to himself. As a virtual environment which was constructed by digital technologies, it is similar to a social structure, so that the interpersonal relations would like to be an indispensable part of this kind of environment. As a consequence, the final goal of this report is that it can help me to improve my relevant study about the interactive immersion environment. That is how to build a much more perfect virtual reality environment by calling the human agency.

Theoretical framework

According to my questions, my report is about the exploring of relations between humans and humans under the interactive virtual reality environment. Under the background of technology or digital media, how are the interpersonal relations coordinated? What role does technology play in a virtual environment? How does technology shape audiences to form a new relation between them? The following theories are the fundamentals of my research.


About the term of virtual reality environment, Paul defined it as one kind of space which was generated and entered by a computers system, and these spaces are constructed by a “vast networked communication space”(Paul). In the beginning, the term of virtual reality was defined by Jaron that it can make users immerse in the 3D space which was built by computers and allow the interactions between humans and the virtual object within this space. After the first commercial introduction of virtual reality by Jaron, it was mainly emerged in the form of headset devices. After, when the artists begin to widely combine their projects with interactive equipment, another form of virtual reality was created,which is created by the screen projection, a more complex 3D world(Paul). Both the definitions of Paul and Jaron emphasized the importance of digital technology and the interactivity or communication of the virtual world. It gives the basic characteristics and fundamentals of a virtual reality environment. Additionally, David Rokeby explained,“Rather than creating finished works, the interactive artist creates relationships” (Rokeby). Under the form of a virtual reality environment, an increasing number of artists are trying to use interactive hardware to achieve the goal of establishing relationships. In those projects, the word “interactive” is crucial, so these artists actively use these cutting-edge technologies to create new forms of interactive methods. After the emergence of early creative artwork which is about virtual reality, people always talked about the term of relationships which is between human and sounds, human and image, and human and space, and so on.


As Latour mentioned, the actor-network theory is a tool that can be used to describe every event that is located on the knots of the network(Larsen). In this definition, Latour uses the words of ‘event’ and ‘tool’ to explain this theory. This means that we should not only simply list the actors which are in the project but also describe the process of the event and the consequences which are caused by the event. Latour also states, “as soon as actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediator” (Latour). He has made a distinction between the meaning of these two words. This shows that these actors would like to render the flow of the information in the network, and then they will be outputted. In this research, technology is also an actor which processes and transfers the information, which is from one person to other persons, so that the goal of modifying interpersonal relation has been achieved.


In the Mediator-theory, by Ihde, the author states four basic relationships based on the model I-Technology-world, which was concluded as Embodied Relations, Hermeneutic Relations, Alterity Relations, and Background Relations(Beyond Interaction | ACM Interactions). These models can be used to explain how technology shapes human’s boundaries. In addition, Irwin also provides a deeper concept, which is suitable for the immersion context(O’Neal Irwin).


In this report, I will make the analysis of Teamlab’s project and my own project the main method. During this analysis and study process, I will use the actor-network theory as a basic start point to describe the relations between the agencies in the art project. Then, I will use the post-phenomenology relevant theory to analyze related issues.


Project Description

Sketch Town, by Teamlab, a studio from Japan, is one of the serious projects from them. It has been toured around the world in recent years. This creative project is based on the theme of co-creation and mainly for Children(“Sketch Town| TeamLab Learn and Play! Future Park”). The concept of this work is to achieve the purpose of building a virtual town through the interaction between the audience and the audience, and the audience and the project. The audiences put their own graffiti into the screen by scanning them. Moreover, the graffiti elements in the picture can be interacted with the audiences and be reacted to the actions of the audiences. In this work, the spectators who build graffiti towns, graffiti painting elements, scanners, virtual towns, projectors, ranging sensors, inter-viewer collaboration, and a social structure make up this piece. The piece is placed in a public space to create a virtual urban environment and to allow the audiences to "enter" into space, the environment. This network relationship will only work when digital technologies and the audiences are working at the same time. When I visited this piece, my immersion was greatly improved after I scanned my painted urban elements into the projection world. In other words, after I got involved in this work, I felt that my “part”, the painting, became one part of the work and made me part of this virtual world.

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(Pictures are from Team Lab’s office webpage)

My own artifact(Figure 1), Night Forest, is an interactive virtual reality environment that aims to build a dreamy night forest. In this work, the richness of the picture, for example, the lushness of the tree and the number of particles, is directly proportional to the total number of viewers who have participated and are participating. The particles in the screen also move in accordance with the movement of the audiences. Unlike most interactive works where the effect of the work and the behaviors of the interactors are real-time, in other word, the effect of the work will not be affected when the audience leaves, when the audience leaves, his influence on the work still exists. Therefore, the previous audiences, the audiences who are participating, Kinect, tree, and particles together constitute this work. I want to place my work in a darker public space outdoors, such as a darker square, because there is only the pedestrian element, and the feeling of immersion will not be destroyed by other elements, such as vehicles. The behaviors of the audiences and digital technologies do not have to exist at the same time. After the audience has participated in the work, their behaviors will be stored by digital technology and will always be part of this work. When new audiences get involved, they will be connected to the previous audience and become a whole.

Formation of a communication network

Different with the projects which can allow a group of people to participate at the same time, especially the immersive virtual reality projects which mainly use headset as a mediator, most of these kinds of projects are constructed by single round trip path which means that one audience only responds according to the reflection of projects which was caused by himself. Rokeb describes this as a “mirror” which returns back interactors to themselves(Rokeby). Irwin explained, “ digital media allows one person to communicate with many and also allows many to communicate with many, and one to communicate with one”(O’Neal Irwin). The emergence of digital technology has changed the way of people communicating with each other. From the first medium to the fourth medium, people’s communication methods are more and more diversified. Moreover, human-to-human communication also shifts from active to passive. In Sketch town, every interactor receives the reflected information from each other under the common space. Each of them as an actor is located on every knot of the complex “work-net”. Because of the construction of this communication, every individual spectator is formed a whole group. Hence, artists change the relations between one and project to relations between several and project. Spectators are passively built a kind of connection with each other, a kind of communication way. Also, in the night forest, this passive phenomenon is more obvious. The audiences who even do not actively interact with the project are also connected with other audiences. To be specific, every spectator is received the reflections which are whether passively or actively toggled by himself and others. Because of the existence of digital technology, this complex communication network was formed. As I mentioned before, in the context of virtual reality environment, people are located in a communication network. Therefore, establishing different ways of transmitting information can adjust the relationship between audiences.

Technology as a shaping tool

This part analyzes how digital technology establishes connection between humans from the perspective of human perception. Ihde explained, “The viewer must move into the equivalents of the screen-theater environment to become an actor. This becomes a possible trajectory for an (embodied) virtual body”(Ihde). When spectators are interacting with these interactive artifacts, they already become a part of the projects, further integrated with other spectators as a whole. Technology as a shaping tool blurs the boundary between human and world, and human and human, so that make human exceed the definition of human and beyond the limitation of human. This shift can make human beings no longer an absolute individual. The intentionality of technology and the intentionality of human influence each other. The composite of them forms a hybrid character, which is partially technology intentionality and partially human intentionality(Verbeek). This kind of hybrid makes it possible that humans can sense each other and translate information with each other. According to the author’s description, they try to translate human to a positive element. By this way, they actively coordinate the relations between humans.(“Relationships Among People | TeamLab / チームラボ”). They contrast the form of an exhibition of traditional painting with the form of an exhibition of digital works. In the exhibition of traditional paintings, the existence of others is an obstacle for themselves. But in their digital work, the existence of others is part of the work. Therefore, the existence of other people has changed from the role of obstacles to a positive one. In daily life, People would like to feel uncomfortable with and do not care about other people’s existence and behaviors, because they cannot understand and even ‘control’ others. In sketch town, however, there is a relation of co-creation between every spectator. In other words, everyone is committing to build this city. In this environment, they can understand others’ behaviors and even ‘control’ others’ behaviors. According to the concepts of “here-body” and “out-there-body”, which are proposed by Idhe(Ihde), these two kinds of ‘entity’ can be converted to each other, that is ‘I’ can feel ‘your’ senses. However, this kind of effect will be decreased without technology. The function of technology is to establish a much more dimension sensibility as much as possible. The development of the movie industry which is from 2D to 3D, and to 4D is building a full-dimensional sensibility environment which is helpful to maximize the immersive experience of audiences. For example,the surrounding of audiences will be imitated physical conditions that appear on screens, such as the wind, the rain, and even the shaking of the ground. By this way, audiences can sense the feeling of out-there-body. In this example, because of the existence of technology, the building of full-dimensional sensibility, ‘hybrid human’ is created. In addition, in this section, the concept of being in the world with technology is described as a deeper concept than those four in the mediator-theory by Irwin. At here,my hypothesis is that digital technology helps human transcend their original perceptions, and information exchange between human regulates relationships between humans in another ideology.


In this kind of project, interactive virtual reality environment, the special characteristics, which are interactivity and immersion, give this kind of project the ability to adjust the relationships between humans and humans. Through the analysis from two angles, one is the basic information exchange network behind the projects, another one is from the functional perspective of technology, my conclusion is that artist use digital Technology to build new and different information exchange networks between viewers to achieve the purpose of coordination. To be specific, the flow of information is established between the spectators. However, they are not actively communicating, but because of the existence of digital tools, the audiences are often in a passive angle. Furthermore, technology as a fusion tool that integrates humans into one, the human’s boundary and limitation are broken in this environment and formed a hybrid character with each other and technology. Within the hybrid character, information spreads and perception pass. The relationship between human beings is regulated by another ideology.