Research VR Podcast - The Science & Design of Virtual Reality

008 - Presence in VR: Defining it, Achieving it, and Never Breaking it

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For those of you joining us for the first time, ResearchVR is a weekly podcast dedicated to breaking down years of Virtual Reality Research into a digestible form, and discussing the current economic trends of the industry around the world. In today’s episode:

Today we’re talking one the most important features of Virtual Reality: Presence, how to define it, achieve, and don’t break it.

1. Definitions, Definitions ...

1.1. Presence

Definition of presence is very confusing and tangled, sometimes differing even withing the same use case. However, all definitions have one thing in common: presence is described as subjective perception of being there.

Our research led us to International Society for Presence Research. ISPR defines presence as failing to acknowledge role of technology in delivering experience.

In a nutshell: presence refers to the subset of human experience in which this misperception involves, at least in part, the actual role of technology in the experience. Presence can occur only DURING using technology, not before / after.

1.2. Related topics

  • first order mediated experience - natural way of perceiving real world => provides subjective feeling of being present in RW
  • second order mediated experience - experiencing via technology
  • immersion - technology providing perceived information (next episode described in detail!)

2. Presence levels

  • (0) aware & acknowledge role of technology
  • (1) partial (i.e. thinking about tech, but perceived being inside VE)
  • (2) unaware of technology channel

3. Presence dimensions

Dimensions in the similar sence as types:

  • being in other location - spatial / physical presence / perceptual immersion / transportation / sense of being there
  • sensory characteristics of VE correspond to those of the physical world - sensory presence / perceptual realism / naturalness / ecological validity / tactile engagement
  • social characteristics in VE correspond to those of the physical world - social realism
  • part or all of a person’s perception fails to accurately acknowledge the role of technology that makes it appear that s/he is communicating with one or more other people or entities - social presence (distinct from realism) /
    • ... communicating with NPC - social actor within the medium / parasocial interaction
    • ... being in the same space with others - co-presence
    • ... communicating with Tech & not even simulated NPC (talking to the Cortana or Siri) - medium as social actor
  • part or all of a person’s perception is directed toward VE and not RW - engagement / involvement / psychological immersion, e.x. storytelling, empathy.

4. Importance of presence

  • entertainment
    • escape from reality
    • deep engagement -> heightened awareness (attention) without distraction -> focus on Experience
  • serious
    • realistic behavior / response / decisions (Slater 2009) -> representative simulations, correctly learned patterns
    • improved learning
    • decreased distraction
    • deep engagement -> heightened awareness (attention) without distraction -> focus on task at hand monkey sees monkey do
  • both
    • strong emotions distract from technology limitations (e.g. pixelization)
    • self-explanatory natural interactions

5. Measure Presence

Why would we measure presence? Isn't it enough that users have fun and report satisfaction? Well, that depends what you need your application for. If it's just for entertainment, then "fun" is your endgame. However, in serious content, a more reliable setups are needed, e.x. for industrial training, research experiments, or medical purposes. Often presence is not just a gimmick, but a tool.

The need for measuring presence is support by the magnitude of interest in the topic. Dozens of methods, theories and educated guesses were developed. A good overview of them can be found here. Even though this publication is from 2004, it provides a mind stretching overview of possibles.

  • Reflex Responses
    • IJsselsteijn (2004), was based on the principle that the more similar a display becomes to the environment it represents, the more observers will respond in the same way that they would respond to the environment itself
    • Nichols, Haldane, and Wilson (2000) (n=24) explored reflex responses to a startle event as a measure for presence. Three categories of reactions were identified: no reaction, verbal report, and physical reaction. There was a positive correlation between three subjective presence items (being there, visiting the virtual world, forgetting real world) and the reflex response score
  • interaction analysis (video tapes)
  • behavioral realism approach
    • Freeman, Avons, Meddis, Pearson, and IJsselsteijn (2000), was based on the principle that the more similar a display becomes to the environment it represents, the more observers will respond in the same way that they would respond to the environment itself
  • social responses
    • Sheridan (1992) first suggested using socially conditioned responses to virtual social encounters, such as grasping for an object that is handed over, shaking hands, or utterances, as indicators of social presence
    • IJsselsteijn, De Ridder, Freeman, and Avons, (2000) also propose a broad range of social behaviours such as facial expressions, gestures, body and head movements, eye contact, vocal cues, turn-taking behaviour, use of space, and verbal expressions
  • Questionnaires
  • Heart Rate
  • Skin Conductance


B) Literature

Freeman, J., Avons, S., Meddis, R., Pearson, D., & IJsselsteijn, W. (2000). Using behavioural realism to estimate presence: A study of the utility of postural responses to motion stimuli. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 9, 149-164.

IJsselsteijn (2004). Presence in Depth. Ph.D. Thesis. Eindhoven University of Technology.

IJsselsteijn, W. A., De Ridder, H., Freeman, J., & Avons, S. E. (2000). Presence: Concept, determinants and measurement. Proceedings of the SPIE, 3959, 520-529.

Nichols, S., Haldane, C., & Wilson , J. R. (2000). Measurement of presence and its consequences in virtual environments. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 52, 471-491.

Sheridan, T. (1992). Musings on telepresence and virtual presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1, 120-126.

Slater, M. (2009). Place illusion and plausibility can lead to realistic behaviour in immersive virtual environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364(1535), 3549–57.


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