From presence to co-presence: ‘being there’ in virtual and mixed reality

The term ‘presence’ is a contraction for ‘telepresence,’ which has been described as the ‘defining experience of VR’ (Steuer 1992). Conventionally, the functioning of ‘presence’ in virtual environments indicates the degree to which participants feel that they are somewhere other than where they ‘physically’ are while experiencing a computer-generated simulation (Sheridan, 1992a and 1992b; Barfield and Weghorst 1993; Slater and Usoh 1994; Barfield, Sheridan, Zeltzer, and Slater 1995). It follows that the concept of ‘presence’ in virtual reality is not so much concerned with ‘aura’ or awareness of ‘self’ or ‘other,’ but rather with ‘the illusion of being here or there’, which, as Frank Biocca indicates, suggests that ‘the fundamental issue at the root of the problem of presence in virtual reality is the perception or illusion of reality (2001: 550, original emphasis). So, if presence defines the illusion of being in virtual reality, what is the relationship between presence and immersion, a term nowadays often used to define virtual and mixed reality experiences?

While presence may be linked to immersion, it is important to note that presence and immersion do not coincide. Mel Slater and Sylvia Wilbur describe immersion in a virtual environment as a quantifiable aspect of a display technology, indicating the features of the technology employed to immerse the participant, while presence refers to ‘a state of consciousness, the (psychological) sense of being in the virtual environment’ (Slater and Wilbur 1997: 604f). It has been argued that the higher the level of immersion, the higher the level of presence, and ‘the more that a system delivers displays (in all sensory modalities) and tracking that preserves fidelity in relation to their equivalent real-world sensory modalities, the more that it is “immersive”’ (Slater 2003). However, for Slater, the experience of presence is ‘a human reaction to immersion’ which means that, given the same level of immersion, participants may still experience presence in different ways (Ibid.). Moreover, it is known that ‘it is not necessary for the users to feel completely immersed in order to perceive presence’ suggesting that ‘low immersive technology can create high presence’ (Seichter in Wang et al 2009: 48). So, if immersion is quantifiable and presence isn’t, why not just measure the former? The answer to this lies in what are described breaks in presence which occur when ‘the participant stops responding to the virtual stream and instead responds to the real sensory stream’ (Slater, Brogni and Steed 2003). A break in presence may occur due to ‘uncanny valley’ a phenomenon that refers to ‘a sense of unease and discomfort’ experienced by some participants when engaging with realistic virtual humans (Tomlinson 2000). So, the lack of presence indicates that participants in a virtual environment did not engage with the illusion of the virtual reality. This in turn shows that an understanding of presence can lead to important findings for the design of virtual reality experiences.

There is evidence that presence may not only be a response to an environment but may also be produced in response to mediations generated by artifacts, both physical and conceptual, ‘between actors and between them and objects both near and remote’ (Mantovani and Riva 1999: 541). This proposition constitutes an understanding of presence that is ‘relational and interactive’ (Ibid.). What is particularly interesting in this context, is that virtual reality environments in which presence is experienced can consequently be described as ‘networks in which people and things construct themselves mutually’ (Ibid.). Such networks suggest that a sense of ‘presence’ may therefore be a response to behaviours and relationships that arise within an ecology in which the actor, or participant, defines and co-constructs, often with others, their active place within the illusion provided by the virtual reality.

Presence is a key measurement not only for virtual but also for mixed reality environments. In this context, it is especially useful to capture users’ sense of presence through a range of categories, including spatial presence, social presence and object presence (Witmer and Singer 1998). Presence, which has been associated to both objective and physical and subjective and psychological components (Slater and Steed 2000), is often assessed through a range of methods, including questionnaires and physiological data. Some questionnaires have been widely discussed and used as a point of inspiration by others (Usoh et al 2000 and Witmer and Singer 1998). Mel Slater’s is particularly useful as it utilises a range of parameters that are suitable in a performative context, namely the subjective sense of ‘being there’, the extent to which users react to the environment as if ‘real’ and the sense of having visited a ‘place’ rather than looked at images representing it (Slater 1999). Critics pointed out that presence questionnaires filled out directly in the virtual reality are less likely to cause a break in presence (Schwind, Knierim, Haas, Henze 2019: 1), than those conducted, as is conventional, immediately after the experience (Slater and Steed 2000; Slater 2004; Sanchez-Vives and Slater 2005).

By comparison with virtual environments, mixed reality environments present a complexity that affects users’ sense of presence within them. The notion of mixed reality was introduced by Milgram and Kishino (1994) and subsequently elaborated by Steve Benford et al who argued that mixed realities tend to be composed of multiple displays and adjacent spaces (Benford, Greenhalgh, Reynard, Brown and Koleva 1998; Benford and Giannachi 2011). One of the most common factors affecting presence in mixed reality is the co-habitation of physical and simulated elements, and the transitions from one to the other. Another is the presence of multiple visitors. When reflecting about presence in mixed reality, versus presence in virtual reality, it is therefore important to note a shift towards ‘social action, interaction and construction of meaning’, as multiple and often ‘interacting users’ inhabit environments with material objects engaging a range of senses (Wagner, Jacussi, Broll, Kuutti 2009: 249).

Just as the experience of presence in virtual reality has been described as being a function of focus (Fontaine 1992), selective attention (Triesman 1963), vividness of an experience and the level of interaction (Sheridan 1992a, 1992b; Steuer 1992) or involvement (Witmer and Singer 1998), the experience of presence in mixed reality is even more so challenged by the fact that it is constructed not in one but multiple adjacent and often fluid spaces, and not only by one but usually by multiple visitors that may well be co-operating but also may be distracting each other during a given experience. Social presence, the feeling of being with another person and presence, the feeling of being in a place, brought together have been described as producing co-presence (Ijsselstein and Riva 2003), and it is co-presence that is a very important parameter for the understanding not only what users experience in mixed reality (Wagner, Jacussi, Broll, Kuutti, 2009) but also how they co-operate in continuing to play along with the illusion generated through it.

With museums increasingly planning for augmented and mixed reality experiences and Magic Leap, our technology provider, planning to launch Enterprise Suite and Device Manager, aimed at ‘bringing physical and digital worlds together as one’ to allow people to ‘either physically present or digitally co-present to collaborate’ (Magic Leap 2019), it is crucial to gain further insight into how people not only experience but also actively collaborate to produce the mixed reality. Through this project we will be able to build on the existing literature on presence and co-presence in virtual and mixed reality environments and reflect on the role of performance within this context.

References

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