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On order of experience

I had the good fortune of meeting with David Attenborough at The White House during the Obama administration. Attenborough was visiting President Obama and demonstrating to him virtual reality experiences that he was producing. During his meeting with the President, Obama donned the headset for the underwater experience. Attenborough later explained to the assembled meeting participants that while not everyone can have the good fortune of visiting the places he has visited in his life, the virtual reality experience is as close as one might get to what it is really like in those faraway places.


This remark struck me and stayed with me, as I have long seen the advantage of classifying sensory experiences, albeit not neatly, into first, second, and third order. A first-order experience is the real deal. You are there taking in the environment with all of your senses. A walk in the woods, wading in a stream, climbing a sand dune, or more distant, snorkeling above a coral reef or riding on an African safari.


Third-order experiences are removed from the real. When we surf online, we see photos and videos and read about what is real (and sadly, much that is not real). Adults and children are spending increasing hours of time each day exploring third-order experiences. Schooling most often presents third-order experiences: a picture in a book, a video, a physical model (think planets or volcanoes). Real experiences are on a small scale: painting a picture, making a small clay pot, building a tower from drinking straws.


Then there is the second-order experience: something more than a picture or a physical model and less than the real thing in its natural environment, like Attenborough’s virtual reality experience. As a simple way of explaining this, think of an elephant. If you live in most parts of the world, your experience with elephants is likely limited to pictures and videos. Your experience is all visual. Being up close to an elephant is a very different experience from seeing a picture of one. While most of us will never see an elephant in its wild habitat, many of us can meet an elephant in a zoo. The sight, sound, and smell of an elephant is special and unforgettable. Stay with the elephant for a while, and you observe its behavior: how it moves and responds to its surroundings. You get to know the elephant.


Museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and other places sit in this special place that bridge first-order and third-order experiences. Attenborough’s virtual reality experiences, it seems to me, sit somewhere in the middle as well. When virtual experiences add smell and enhanced haptic technologies, as I believe they will soon do,

they will be as close as one might get to the real.


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