By Giuseppe Riva
In its more general use in relation to experiences mediated by digital information technology, the term “presence” has referred to a widely reported sensation experienced during the use of virtual reality (VR)–the feeling of being inside the experienced virtual environment. However, as noted by Frank Biocca, Director of the Media Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Lab., and agreed upon by most researchers in the area, “While the design of VR technology has brought the theoretical issue of presence to the fore, few theorists argue that the experience of presence suddenly emerged with the arrival of VR.”
In the last twenty years many authors have tried to elaborate upon a consistent theory about presence. Specifically, there have been several attempts to define the concept that can be summarized by two general approaches–“media presence” and “inner presence.”
One group of researchers describes the sense of presence as “Media Presence,” a function of our experience of a given medium. The main result of this approach are the definitions of presence such as the “perceptual illusion of non-mediation” produced by means of the disappearance of the medium from the conscious attention of the subject. The main advantage of this approach is its predictive value–the level of presence is reduced by the experience of mediation during the action. The main limitation of this vision is questions that are not answered such as, “What is presence for?” “Is it a specific cognitive process?” “What is its role in our daily experience?” It is important to note that these questions are unanswered even for the relationship between presence and media.
To address these questions, a second group of researchers considers presence as “Inner Presence,” a broad psychological phenomenon not necessarily linked to the experience of a medium, whose goal is the control of the individual and social activity. In this paper we will support this second vision, trying to detail its main claims.
Recent research in neuroscience has tried to understand human action from two different but converging perspectives–the cognitive and the volitional. On one side, cognitive studies analyze how action is planned and controlled in response to environmental conditions. On the other side, volitional studies analyze how action is planned and controlled by subjects’ needs, motives and goals. Here, we suggest that presence is the missing link between these two approaches. Specifically, we consider presence as a neuropsychological phenomenon, evolved from the interplay of our biological and cultural inheritance, whose goal is the inaction of volition: presence is the prereflexive perception of successfully transforming our intentional chain into action (inaction). Within this vision, we suggest that the ability to feel “present” in a VR system–an artifact–basically does not differ from the ability to feel “present” in our body and the surrounding physical environment in which we are situated.
More in detail, the presence process can be described as a sophisticated but unconscious form of monitoring of action and experience, transparent to the self but critical for its existence. The main experiential outcome of this process is the sense of agency–we feel that we are both the author and the owner of our own actions. In this view, a higher level of presence is experienced as a better quality of action and experience. The more the subject is able to enact his/her intentional chain in a successful action, the more he/she feels present. We also suggest that it is the feeling of presence that provides to the self with key feedback about the status of its activity. The self perceives the variations in the feeling of presence and tunes its activity accordingly.
For this reason, the feeling of presence is not separated by the experience of the subject but is directly related to it. A greater feeling of presence is experienced by the self as a better quality of action and experience. The agent perceives directly only significant variations in the feeling of presence: breakdowns and optimal experiences.
Why do we consciously track presence variations? Our hypothesis is that these variations are a sophisticated evolutionary tool used to control quality of behavior. Specifically, the subject tries to overcome any breakdown in its activity and searches for engaging and rewarding activities (optimal experiences). It provides both the motivation and the guiding principle for successful action.
This cognitive-driven vision can drive the development of better and more immersive virtual experiences. Below there are some general guidelines derived from the “inner presence” approach:
- For presence, action is more important than perception: The user is more present in a perceptually poor virtual environment (e.g. a textual MUD) where he/she can act in many different ways than in a real-like virtual environment where he/she cannot do anything.
- Subjects with different intentions, such as exploring the environment or reducing the anxiety level, will not experience the same level of presence, even when immersed in the same virtual environment. This means that understanding and supporting the intentions of the user will improve his/her presence in the virtual world.
- The more complex the task is, the more difficult it is to induce a high level of presence. It is easier to induce presence during simple tasks (operations) such as removing spark plugs, than in complex tasks (activities) such as repairing a car.
- Maximal presence is achieved when the environment is able to support the full intentional chain of the user, including his/her motor intentions. This can explain the success of the Nintendo Wii over competing consoles or the need of a long-term goal to induce a high level of presence after many experiences of the same virtual environment.
Giuseppe Riva, Ph.D. Istituto Auxlogico Italiano Italy email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.