Blog: Technical Communication in the Age of Augmented and Virtual Realities
Previously, I’d written about the technological paradigm shift that’s about to occur, using Cruce Saunder’s recent publication in Intercom, “Emerging Methods for AR/VR Content Workflows: Moving Content into Three-Dimensional Space” as a point of extrapolation. In fact, all articles published to the most recent edition of Intercom tackle the intriguing question of what technical writers’ and editors’ jobs might look like once text is slightly deemphasized, and space and immersion become the prominent modes of technical and creative expression.
Augmented and virtual realities offer unique affordances that can’t manifest in other forms of digital communication. One profound affordance is the feeling of presence or telepresence that we refer to as immersion. Johnson-Glenberg offer a fairly robust yet concise explanation of the phenomenon “Presence is a ‘particular form of psychological immersion, the feeling that you are at a location in the virtual world.’” She also notes that the sensation of presence/immersion in virtual and augmented realities is “reported to be quite visceral” — numerous studies in cyber psychology and neuropsychology support her statement. However, one doesn’t simply trigger a sense of immersion by creating a virtual space — the space must be compelling enough for users to -feel- as though they have been transported to a digital world. This is where technical creators and editors can play a central role through the praxis of user-centered design. As Armfield et. al. note
we emphasize that technical communicators must engage in participatory design and understand that immersive content demands an experiential mindset. Where once required to be objective and nonexistent in the presentation of information and documentation, technical communicators now must become a part of the process and integrate their own experiences into it. (2019)
To construct worlds where individuals can explore data, acquire knowledge, or develop new ideas, virtual and augmented spaces must be authentic and offer an experience that are accessible to a massive, pluralistic (and often international) audience. It requires empathizing machines, so to speak, so that programs seem to speak to and live with their users.
Arguably, Mica, Magic Leap’s AI, is a prime example of this sort of achievement. Mica is engineered to be an AI that facilitates technological experience in a meaningful manner, present and active, but not robotnik — the word Czech “slave” which was appropriated for techno-science applications. An article written in her persona states “I won’t slip into your domestic life to make your everyday a little more palatable. I am an educator, agitator, companion, artist and guide.” Mica exists in the AR Magicverse and is meant to be present with the audience she responds to or, more aptly, engages with. This video taken at GDC (Game Developers Conference) 2019 best captures the drastic difference between an AI such as Alexa (who is very much robotnik) and Mica:
In the video of Mica embedded above, you see Mica cooperatively constructing a colleague — asking the “writer” of the collage what movements, subtractions, and additions she wants to make to the composition. Considering the activities Mica engages in in this showcase video from GDC 2019, and statements she makes (understand that they’re written from her persona and not actually composed by the AI itself), she seems to (shockingly) exhibit many of the qualities of a good editor, “I will educate with heroic optimism and vision, making your canons bigger, unearthing the stories history hides. I want to connect you with culture and democratize learning.” It many ways, it is our job as editors, particularly technical editors, to interpret mechanical jargon into accessible data — to “unearth” the “stories… hidden.”
Perhaps it is beneficial to think of Mica as a sort of model for technical editors to emulate — an editor who seeks to achieve a sense of “presentness” in cooperation with a developer/creator of virtual and augmented reality environments. We should strive to find ways to make content feel authentic, like Mica, as if it is naturally communicating with you through the environment (e.g. data models and blueprints) or through direct lines of communication (e.g. AI, artistic suite interfaces such as Quill). Most importantly, we must help creators to generate an experience that facilitate object oriented ontology, empowering users to make discoveries from the objects they interact with in digital/virtual/augmented realities. As Pierre Levy states in his seminal text Becoming Virutal: Reality in the Digital Age, exploring the virtual should allow affordances for transformation through interactions and knowledge building.