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.

Phenomenological Reduction (Bracketing or Epoché) in the Literature Review

While forming my PhD literature review, I’m currently aiming to structure it more rigorously as Randolph (2009) has suggested: by using a phenomenological approach also to examine the phenomena in my literature review. Here’s a couple of quick thoughts about this process, and about the current stage of trying to set aside my personal theoretical views and natural attitude through phenomenological reduction, or ‘epoché’.

I am already starting to see the benefits for doing the lit review like this. Perhaps some would say their way of choosing sources for their lit review is somehow implicitly “objective”, and they do not need such ‘heuristics’. With the support from Randolph (2009) I have to kinda doubt it. We always have an inclination towards something, that’s what makes us humans. I feel it is going beyond this attitude of “letting things pass as we don’t initially feel them to fit” that makes us better researchers.

Now, I am trying to achieve a representative picture of how virtual environments and HCI is perceived to convey a context. I have started to see how my background as an interaction designer and a gamer really affects what I consider as good research. I sigh every time when I read about ‘serious games’ studies where the participants are mainly allowed to interact through clickers or better yet, answering to instructors questions about the game. In my eyes, this violates everything video games are about. Still, I need to hold this view, as there are many things one can learn about such articles, to which I will not dive more here.

Also, my worldview seems to lie in the axis of interpretivist-pragmatist, which in English means I cannot stand either the overly postmodern theory building nor the overly positivistic “one-variable-at-a-time” laboratory studies. Still, both of them, if quality articles, can convey yet another dimension of the phenomenon I am aiming to describe.

These aforementioned aspects are just a couple of things I need to make visible in my study, let them go (or better yet,  interact with them in my study, see Finlay (2014)), and let the “Otherness” of some studies to be treated with an equal value in order to better understand concepts such as presence, immersion and virtual embodiment.

For the process of the reduction, I have found Lisa Finlay’s articles especially helpful. Finally there is a person who can clearly and succinctly write how to engage in a process that is crucial in order to maintain a phenomenological research attitude – and I consider doing this would be useful to other researchers too.

More to read:

Finlay, L. (2014). Engaging Phenomenological Analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 11(2), 121–141. doi:10.1080/14780887.2013.807899

Finlay, L. (2008). A Dance Between the Reduction and Reflexivity: Explicating the “Phenomenological Psychological Attitude.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 39, 1–32. doi:10.1163/156916208X311601

Randolph, J. J. (2009). A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(13), 1–13. http://pareonline.net/pdf/v14n13.pdf

Doing literature review section on virtual embodiment with NVivo

Recently I’ve been developing a section of my PhD literature review that examines the concept of embodiment in virtual environments. Not too much about the topic here, but about the process itself.

I usually keep my journal articles and other stuff in Mendeley. It’s similar to EndNote (a bit better even IMHO), basically a simple software that lets you keep a tagged library of source materials that you can annotate and highlight. Also a nice feature is getting the right kind reference out of the software (if you are lucky) instead of having to write it yourself.

Still, with some processes such as trying to understand a concept by reading many source materials, I find Mendeley becomes too slow and a bit rigid. Yes you can highlight things and annotate directly to articles, but they don’t actually go anywhere as a list, nor can you compare the highlighted parts to other documents in the same folder, category or theme.

Then I remembered someone mentioned me using NVivo for “quick literature reviews” so I thought I’ll take 40 or so articles, drop them there and see what happens. At this stage, I really have give big thanks to Pat Bazeley who originally got me started with the software in the first place, way before my PhD journey! 🙂

NVivo seems to work quite nicely actually. I can see several benefits for doing the lit review like this, such as coding various articles and then writing them out in your own article, e.g. themed in an orderly fashion (instead of just one article a time or something). You can also link NVivo memos (which on the other hand could use some development) between different documents or highlights (codes) to ponder things further. Then basically combine that to a literature review draft.

So, at least this seems swell for now, and the Mac version seems to be quite fast too. I have used NVivo in one previous qualitative study with a PC and for some reason it seemed to crash quite often. The Mac version seems to be quite stable (knock on wood). One thing I’d like to test out in some point in the future is how it works with other non-written sources such as videos. I’m thinking of a study about comparing fictive and academic accounts about certain phenomena, and NVivo could be handy in that.

I also found an article by Randolph (2009), that kinda says lit reviews are generally crap but no one wants to admit it. Often they do not have a justified structure, nor are the chosen articles and rising themes examined critically enough. I feel when you really code the articles and keep a continuous memoing, it adds more of that always-requested rigour to the process. And I guess it will make it easier to write the whole thing anyway – instead of just glancing the articles and perhaps highlighting some parts.

More to read:

Randolph, J. J. (2009). A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review. Retreived from http://pareonline.net/pdf/v14n13.pdf

Pat Bazeley’s website has nice resources for coding with NVivo: http://www.researchsupport.com.au