Mel Slater's Presence Blog

Thoughts about research and radical new applications of virtual reality - a place to write freely without the constraints of academic publishing,and have some fun.

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I still find immersive virtual reality as thrilling now as when I first tried it 20 years ago.

06 November, 2006

Presence - the view from Marina del Rey

During the last week of October I was at the Institute of Creative Technology at University of Southern California in Los Angeles (Marina del Rey). The purpose was a meeting of invited people only to discuss presence in virtual reality, but where there was a mix of computer scientists, human factors people, engineers, artists and people involved in computer games. The meeting was interesting, and a great idea, but also I found it very frustrating - although there was a great view outside my hotel room.

This concept of ‘presence’ has been around for a long time – it started with ‘telepresence’ in the context of teleoperator systems (people controlling remote robots) and then shifted to ‘presence’ when virtual reality came into vogue in the late 1980s early 1990s. This is not going to be an academic article so I’m not going to provide any references – take a look on ‘google scholar’ and look up ‘presence’ ‘Durlach’ ‘Held’ ‘Sheridan’ ‘Loomis’ for some of the early discussions.

Basically presence has been thought of as ‘the sense of being there’ – some people when they go into a virtual reality experience a shift of their sense of place, so that they feel themselves to be in the place simulated by the VR rather than in the physical place in which they actually are.

This is the approach that I used also for many years, and it was useful for a while. But, how do you find out if someone has a ‘sense of being there’? The only way of course is to ask them, and that leads to the use of questionnaires and interviews. Anyway, over the years there have been a large number of papers devoted to this issue, there is an International Society for Presence Research (ISPR – don’t confuse it with the International Society for Paranormal Research), and several groups across the world who contribute to the ‘presence’ literature.

But…..

After all these years, a large part of the meeting at ICT was devoted to discussing ‘what presence really is?’ searching for the ultimate ‘definition’ of presence.

When you hear this kind of thing in discussion of a research subject, you know that the game is already lost.

How can there be ‘presence research’ when no two people seem to agree what they are talking about?

In spite of all the definitions of ‘presence’ - what presence ‘really is’ is equivalent to what ‘presence researchers’ do to measure it. Someone might define presence to be X, but if you look at what they do it may or may not have some relation with X. I was very frustrated during this meeting and the fruitless discussions about ‘definition’ – not too useful or exciting decades after people first started researching into this subject.

So I decided to start this ‘blog’. In this blog I’m going to try to explain some of my ideas about this phenomenon, but more importantly what I try to do to define it in practice – as I said what presence really is for any researcher is exactly equivalent to how they attempt to ‘measure’ it. So what I do is more important than what I say.

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