Exploring The Meaning Of Presence In Virtual Reality


We can spend hours talking about the different types of virtual reality experiences, but we can narrow down the true core of enjoying them to the fullest engagement level possible by talking about presence.

It’s the idea of presence – of your being fully present in a virtual environment so your brain believes you are there – that defines the ultimate experience.

When your brain is fully in that state, you will react almost subconsciously to stimuli you receive. If an arrow flies at you, you’ll duck to avoid it. If you stand on top of a waterfall and look over the edge, you’ll feel the vertigo.

But those real physical movements of feelings can also be supplemented with other more subtle physical reactions. An example might be blushing in an embarrassing situation, or a reaction of pupils dilating at the sight of something attractive.
This concept of presence can be broken down into two key areas – cognitive and perceptive.


Cognitive Presence

This refers to what your mind is seeing or immediately engaged with. It could be a game, or watching TV, reading, studying. It’s the type of activity we perform all day.

Under normal circumstances this is experienced as a focus on a task in hand. You can be deeply engrossed in it, but still conscious of the outside world.

Once in a virtual environment though, other external influences are removed, and your cognitive engagement in the VR world is total. Your brain is now fully present in the all-encompassing imagery you see in a headset.

But the human brain is a complex thing. It takes cues from multiple inputs to determine what’s real or not. This is where perceptive presence pulls it all together and completes the picture.

Without all elements of cognitive and perceptive presence being congruent, the brain will soon begin to suspend belief in what it is experiencing. Interestingly, the extent to which that happens will depend partly on the environment itself. It’s easier to ignore whether something is unreal or not in an unreal environment (eg a platform game) than it is in a real life one (for example a travel video).


Perceptive Presence

Here we’re talking about engagement of multiple senses, not just sight. Sound, touch, physical movement, and smell all send important messages to the brain. As does the actual ability to interact physically with a virtual object.
Once cognitive presence is achieved, these others all act as enhancers.

Delivery of these in VR environments is achieved using accessories.


Can VR Presence Be Measured?

This is difficult to achieve on a technical measurement level. The most obvious indicator to an outside observer would be on how the headset wearer is responding to what is being experienced.

Ducking, diving, strange balancing movements, and jerky hand movements will all indicate a good level of immersion.

If the experience is a stressful one, it may be possible to monitor skin temperature, pulse, or heart rates.

The one sure way to measure will be in monitoring brain wave patterns. Virtual reality experiences will place us in altered conscious states. These will most certainly show in measurements of brain waves, though determining from this the level of engagement would take considerable testing with different subjects over time.