A few weeks ago I was playing games on a Wii with some friends, and it struck me that a lot of the fun of the system comes from being able to move something in the real world and have it move something in the virtual world. Some of this thrill may be due to the novelty value of the technology, as I seem to recall the same fascination when I first used a mouse, but I think there's more to it than that. As part of my new job, I use computing devices in schools with children, and I often see that fascination from them. For example, when using a tablet PC, they were enchanted with the fact that they could use the input pen to draw on the screen like a real pen, and even more so that they could use the other end of it as a rubber. The same children were fairly unimpressed with a touch-screen & stylus Nokia internet tablet previously -- the joy seemed to come from the fact that they could use it as though it was real, and took more delight in scribbling on a page than I'd imagine they would with real paper and pens.
Another time I see this 'almost real' sensation take positive effect is in 3D displays. As another part of my job I was in the uni's VR Cave the other week (did I mention my job ROCKS?), and everyone there was being wowed by the 3D image of an office chair. Assuming that the rest of the audience weren't chair fanatics, I got to wondering just what the excitement with virtual 3D is. Because it is exciting. I can stare enthralled at Magic Eye pictures for ages, while an auto-stereoscopic TV or immersive environment just takes my breath away, for reasons I can't quite understand. After all, it's not like you'll often find me staring at an orange, going "wow, look at it! It's so round! I can see all its sides! And look at the detail on that texture!!" So it clearly can't just be the third dimension that's so fascinating.
So what is it about these technologies that's so entertaining? It seems to be this 'almost-real' feeling -- the joy of finding things to be not quite as they are. A pen is real, and therefore boring, while most adults won't have much time for pretending that a twig is a magic wand. But the fun perhaps is in the believable illusion -- knowing that a piece of paper is flat is vital to the excitement of seeing shapes protruding from it.
Or, of course, it could just be that I still have a childlike ability to find amusement in the mundane. Perhaps I'll go and study an orange for a bit...