immersion by stuart goldberg


Presence is the illusion that a virtual experience is real. Today, it often considers the effect that people experience when they interact with a computer-mediated or computer-generated environment. This use of the term derives from the word ‘telepresence,’ coined by MIT professor Marvin Minsky in 1980, which he described as the manipulation of objects in the real world through remote access technology. For example, a surgeon may use a computer to control robotic arms to perform minute procedures on a patient in another room. Or a NASA technician may use a computer to control a rover to collect rock samples on Mars.

As technologies progressed, the need for an expanded term arose. Thomas Sheridan (also of MIT, and a pioneer of robotics and remote control technology) extrapolated Minsky’s original definition. Using the shorter ‘presence,’ Sheridan explained that the term refers to the effect felt when controlling real world objects remotely as well as the effect people feel when they interact with and immerse themselves in virtual reality or virtual environments.

Presence can be: a sense of social richness, the feeling one gets from social interaction; a sense of realism, such as computer-generated environments looking, feeling, or otherwise seeming real; a sense of transportation (also includes users feeling as though something is ‘here’ with them or feeling as though they are sharing common space with another person); a sense of immersion, either through the senses or through the mind; and presence can provide users with the sense they are social actors within the medium. No longer passive viewers, users, via presence, gain a sense of interactivity and control.

Matthew Lombard’s work at Temple University discusses the extent to which ‘presence’ is felt, and how strong the perception of presence is regarded without the media involved. The most important variables involve contextual clues like sensory richness or vividness – and the number and consistency of sensory outputs. Researchers believe that the greater the number of human senses for which a medium provides stimulation, the greater the capability of the medium to produce a sense of presence. Additional important aspects of a medium are visual display characteristics (image quality, image size, viewing distance, motion and color, dimensionality, camera techniques) as well as aural presentation characteristics, stimuli for other senses (interactivity, obtrusiveness of medium, live versus recorded or constructed experience, number of people), content variables (social realism, use of media conventions, nature of task or activity), and media user variables (willingness to suspend disbelief, knowledge of and prior experience with the medium). Lombard also examines the effects of presence, including both physiological and psychological consequences of ‘the perceptual illusion of nonmediation.’ Physiological effects of presence may include arousal, or vection (the illusion of self-motion) and simulation sickness, while psychological effects may include enjoyment, involvement, task performance, skills training, desensitization, persuasion, memory and social judgement, or parasocial interaction and relationships.

Lombard suggested that people, especially children, interact with computers socially. The researchers found, via their study, that children who received positive encouragement from a computer were more confident in their ability, were more motivated, recalled more of a story and recognized more features of a story than those children who received only neutral comments from their computer. Another study found that the inclusion of anthropomorphic agents that relied on artificial intelligence on a Web site had positive effect on people’s attitudes toward the site.

Communication has been a central pillar of presence since the term’s conception. Many applications of the Internet today largely depend on virtual presence since its conception One study offered MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, as early examples of how communication developed a sense of presence on the Web prior to the graphics-heavy existence it has developed today. ‘MUDs…[are] imaginary worlds in computer databases where people use words and programming languages to improvise melodramas, build worlds and all the objects in them, solve puzzles, invent amusements and tools, compete for prestige and power, gain wisdom, seek revenge, indulge greed and lust and violent impulses.’ ‘In addition, text-based MUDs are a new form of collaboratively written literature. MUD players are MUD authors, the creators as well as consumers of media content. In this, participating in a MUD has much in common with script writing, performance art, street theater, improvisational theater – or even commedia dell’arte.’ Further blurring the lines of behavioral spheres, Gabriel Weimann wrote that media scholars have found that virtual experiences are very similar to real-life experiences, and people can confuse their own memories and have trouble remembering if those experiences were mediated or not.

Sheridan’s view of presence earned its first pop culture reference in 1984 with William Gibson’s pre-World Wide Web science fiction novel ‘Neuromancer,’ which tells the story of a cyberpunk cowboy of sorts who accesses a virtual world to hack into organizations. Joshua Meyrowitz’s 1986 ‘No Sense of Place’ discusses the impact of electronic media on social behavior. The novel discusses how social situations are transformed by media. Media, he claims, can change one’s ‘sense of place,’ by mixing traditionally private versus public behaviors – or back-stage and front-stage behaviors, respectively, as coined by sociologist Erving Goffman as part of his theory of dramaturgy (the observation that individuals act differently when in different situations and enclaves). Meyrowitz suggests that television alone will transform the practice of front-stage and back-stage behaviors, as television would provide increased information to different groups who may physically not have access to specific communities but through media consumption are able to determine a mental place within the program. He references Marshall McLuhan’s concept that ‘the medium is the message,’ and that media provide individuals with access to information. With new and changing media, Meyrowitz says that the patterns of information and shifting accesses to information change social settings, and help to determine a sense of place and behavior. With the logic that behavior is connected to information flow, Meyrowitz states that front- and back-stage behaviors are blurred and may be impossible to untangle.

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