Theses Doctoral

Playing with Virtual Reality: Early Adopters of Commercial Immersive Technology

Foxman, Maxwell Henry

This dissertation examines early adopters of mass-marketed Virtual Reality (VR), as well as other immersive technologies, and the playful processes by which they incorporate the devices into their lives within New York City. Starting in 2016, relatively inexpensive head-mounted displays (HMDs) began to be manufactured and distributed by leaders in the game and information technology industries. However, even before these releases, developers and content creators were testing the devices through “development kits.” These de facto early adopters, who are distinctly commercially-oriented, acted as a launching point for the dissertation to scrutinize how, why and in what ways digital technologies spread to the wider public.

Taking a multimethod approach that combines semi-structured interviews, two years of participant observation, media discourse analysis and autoethnography, the dissertation details a moment in the diffusion of an innovation and how publicity, social forces and industry influence adoption. This includes studying the media ecosystem which promotes and sustains VR, the role of New York City in framing opportunities and barriers for new users, and a description of meetups as important communities where devotees congregate.
With Game Studies as a backdrop for analysis, the dissertation posits that the blurry relationship between labor and play held by most enthusiasts sustains the process of VR adoption. Their “playbor” colors not only the rhetoric and the focus of meetups, but also the activities, designs, and, most importantly, the financial and personal expenditures they put forth. Ultimately, play shapes the system of production by which adopters of commercial VR are introduced to the technology and, eventually, weave it into their lives. Situating play at the center of this system highlights that the assimilation of digital media is in part an embodied and irrational experience. It also suggests new models by which future innovations will spread to the public.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Gitlin, Todd
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 23, 2018