The language and terminology around virtual reality is still evolving, but the VR community has been settling into using the phrase ‘VR experience’ in order to describe the process of a going through a piece of virtual reality content. I had a friend/business partner over who got her Ph.D. in German literature, and she had a lot of really interesting insights about how the German language actually has two separate words for experience with “Erfahrung” and “Erlebnis.”
On today’s episode of the Voices of VR Podcast, I talk with Dr. Jenn Zahrt about the differences between erfahrung and erlebnis, and whether or not a third term might be required in order to describe the process of going through a virtual reality experience. Jenn says that erlebnis could be thought of a unique ‘lived experience’ that you actually go through with your embodied flesh, and that an erfahrung encompasses a much wider range of types of experience ranging from an archive of memories created from your erlebnisse but also knowledge that’s gained from indirect sources like the media, books, and external sources of authority.
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Merriam Webster has a number of different definitions for experience such as “the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.” This definition closely mirrors the direct sensory experience that could be translated as an ‘erlebnis.’ And ‘erfahrung’ could be thought of as the “practical knowledge, skill, or practice derived from direct observation of or participation in events or in a particular activity.”
Jenn and I discuss the other nuances between erfahrung and erlebnis as well as some of the open questions and insights that these two German words for experience bring up. For example, the process of other people telling a story and curating a VR experience could be thought of an erfahrung, but yet having a direct sensory of experience of it could be thought of as having an ‘erlebnis’ type of experience. Or is it really possible to have a “lived experience” erlebnis within VR? Does it require a new term to describe this blend between the two? And is it possible to have an ‘erlebnis’ type of lived experience in VR if you have high enough levels of fidelity of emotional, social, embodied, and active presence?
There are many more open questions here to be explored, and I’d be curious to hear any feedback about other lessons that the VR community could learn from looking at the differences between ‘erfahrung’ and ‘erlebnis.’