Theories of Engagement

With the dawn of augmented experiences and virtual reality upon us, we need a richer framework for measuring and managing engagement; one that can be applied across devices, form factors and user interfaces. What if there were a general formula to measure the ways that we engage with media around us?

Maybe it would go something like this:

engagement = resolution * granularity * immediacy * interactivity * affinity

engagement is attention over time- how much of your sensory capacity is being applied to a specific media object?

resolution is media’s capacity for immersion, driven by the audio and visual stimuli it has at its disposal.

granularity is the distinguishability of details within your perceptual frame; as you focus in on a part, how many more parts does it reveal? (One way to think about it is that resolution is about potential : the upper limit of expressiveness; while granularity is about substance: the inherent complexity of an object regardless of how “flattened out” it may have become through successive representations.)

immediacy is the feeling that you are experiencing something live, with limited if any latency between the original content and its representation to you.

interactivity measures the sensory feedback that you are expected to provide back to the media: commenting, sharing, rating, remixing are all types of feedback.

affinity is the specific set of interests that you bring to an experience, and which makes certain subjects resonate stronger than others.


71. One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges. “But is a blurred concept a concept at all?” Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture with a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need? (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1950)

What if we replaced Wittgenstein’s milieu of 1950’s photography with today’s live Internet broadcasts? And, instead of his argument about the value of indistinct, blurred edges, we emphasized the importance of latency and lag; for, as many times as we may reboot our wifi router and move around our house in search of a faster, higher quality stream, the fact is that the graininess of our imperfect experience is what ironically makes us believe that it is indeed live.

And yet, there are limits as to how much resolution we are willing to sacrifice. At a certain point, the degradation in quality of a live simulation will drive us to consume its higher quality (albeit less immediate) re-presentation.


Here are some examples that illustrate this dynamic:

  1. Despite the production of increasingly higher quality professional sex videos, the pornography business is being disrupted by relatively low rez, amateur cam girl networks.
  2. Single-player modes of console video games like Call of Duty demonstrate the highest level of graphic quality available, and yet what drives these franchises are co-op modes that sacrifice perfect resolution for a more immediate, glitchy social experience.
  3. Sports fans tolerate the laggiest live streams of their favorite teams — constantly refreshing their browser or shutting/re-opening an app — in order to experience the game in real-time.

I bought a 5k iMac last year. Insofar as I felt the need to justify its expense, and as a celebration of its resolution, I made a desktop link to this Japanese Snow Monkeys video that was shot at 5k. As if, somehow, we are obligated to always invest in the newest technology to reveal the inherent complexity and subtlety of human nature. And those of thus who have access to more media resolution have a fuller understanding of the real world.

Q. Why do you need 5120 x 2880 pixels on your desktop?
A. So I can see the individual chin hairs on the snow monkey.

It often seems as if increases in resolution are simply technology’s means of evoking the granularity that culture desires. But then there are examples that confuse this logic, like when artist James Turrell creates a viewing experience at the base of a crater in the Arizonan desert: a mega resolution / minimal granularity experience:

The viewer must secure special passage to visit this work of contemporary American land art; so that she can stare at the hue of the sky through a man-made hole in the ceiling:

I wanted an area where you had a sense of standing on the planet. I wanted an area of exposed geology like the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert, where you could feel geologic time. Then in this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engaged celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a “music of the spheres” in light. The sequence of spaces, leading up to the final large space at the top of the crater, magnifies events. The work I do intensifies the experience of light by isolating it and occluding light from events not looked at. James Turrell on Roden Crater