What is VR ‘Presence’?
Presence is the feeling of ‘being there’. It is taking full control of your virtar and experiencing the virtual reality through its eyes. It has eluded previous generations of VR hardware due to the technical difficulty, speed and fidelity required to trick the brain into believing what it was seeing had actually replaced the environment it was just in (i.e. before it put on the VR headset).
So it’s like immersion?
Up to a point, but immersion can only go so far. Even playing a really great first-person game on a monitor late at night with lots of your favourite immersion-inducing herbeverages won’t get you as far inside the character you are playing as putting on a VR headset and wrapping the virtual world around you.
Why is it better?
Because it’s the difference between playing a game and experiencing the game, through your virtar’s eyes (yes, exactly like in ‘Avatar’). When the things in the game are happening to you, and not a character on screen, the stakes go up exponentially. Imagine watching a football game on TV, then imagine being at the game, in the crowd, then imagine being on the pitch, playing the game! That’s Presence.
How does presence work?
Basically, when creating a virtual environment, you provide as much stimuli as you can to re-create the conditions you’d experience were you actually in that space for real. Graphics and sounds are very effective and pretty much covered at this point. If you’re racing a car then a seated position would help, having a wheel-shaped controller and pedals increase the simulated ‘feel’. If you were able to add hydraulics for a rocking motion and cornering, the smell of petrol, rubber and pit girls all would corroborate the story being told to your senses and your mind would start to accept the new reality. The most important in-application effect is that of a body which mimics your movements. When your hands move around in the VR world as you move them in the real world, your brain says ‘yup, them’s my hands’. Add legs and a torso to the mix and you are good to go. When your subconscious mind starts to think you are seeing your actual body, you’ve achieved a sense of presence.
Welcome to the machine
Scientists tested the idea that we could ‘dislocate’ our minds into a virtual environment via such avatars; they put a subject into a VR environment and showed them an avatar with a beating heart that was synchronised with their own heart-beat. Before long, the subject had the heady sensation of switching places into the avatar. This has formed part of the core empirical data for supposing that a mind can be transferred to another platform (WTF?!?). Think ‘Lawnmower Man’, ‘The Matrix’ or Iain M. Banks’ culture novels and you’re pretty much there.
Can I get some?
Yes! Come get some! It’s early days yet, but the sense of presence has finally emerged in this generation of hardware with many additional options available or under development that further increase the emergent phenomenon. Anything that stimulates your senses in accord with the virtual experience does, in theory, increase your immersion and keep you ‘in the zone’. Things like mum unplugging your headset to get you down to tea, dogs licking your hand or your smelly wash-basket can give you a hint that you can’t believe everything you see..
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P.S. What’s a ‘Virtar’?
Virtual Avatar = Virtar. A decade ago, we’d have just used the term ‘avatar’, but that has become many things to many people and now we feel we need something to do the new dimension justice. It’s not an externalised representation of your will or a cool icon (as with a traditional avatar), it is, as Morpheus might say: “the digital representation of your virtual self”. Your virtar is a place for your mind while it is exploring VReality, equipped with PEAs (Binaural audio, full body mo-cap, haptic feedback etc.) to fully transport you to that realm. Through the medium of your virtar, you’ll experience the delight, exhilaration, fear and intensity of the experience you’ve chosen.