April 29, 2007

A sense of presence - lessons from an experiment in RL

- by Magellan Egoyan

There is a debate going on in the academic world concerning the role and importance of the idea of "presence" in relation to virtual worlds, with a particular interest with respect to art, especially new media art. Presence is one of those words with many different meanings and contextual uses. Hence the word is used to discuss the effectiveness of immersive virtual experiences (that is, virtual reality is successful if there is a sense of being "present" in a 3D, multisensory manner). But the word is also used to situate various forms of remote immersive experience as a factual descriptor… hence the term "telepresence" is sometimes used for the idea that one’s presence is projected into a given place at some distance from where one is actually located.

Presence is also used to describe the sense of "agency" one may experience in a real or virtual environment. Sometimes "presence" may also have spiritual overtones … do you feel the presence of God? The concept is often used to distinguish formally between agents and avatars – avatars are operated by a person and therefore involve "presence", whereas agents may be pieces of software in relation to which no one is actually "present". However, I believe most people have experienced a sense of "presence" with regard to experiential contexts in which no person is actually involved at the time of the manifestation. Hence, particular works of art may be felt as having a significant presence, even though the artist is not "actually" present at the time the work is viewed.

In a recent multidisciplinary graduate seminar at the university at which I work (Laval University in Quebec City), several experiments were undertaken to explore the concept of "presence" in both real and virtual environments. The class divided itself into three groups for this. The first group explored, in a semi-scientific manner (that is, by posing and evaluating a hypothesis), the idea that a person’s movement abstracted from the body itself using a motion capture measurement system (often called "mocap"), may still reveal the person’s distinctive presence. A second group compared the sense of presence generated by different means – a live actor on stage, a "chinese shadow play" generated by a live actor, a virtual actor recorded using mocap and visualized as an avatar, and the pre-recorded image of an actor. Interestingly, the results revealed the most sense of presence in the interaction between these different manifestations of the actor, rather than in any one representation. Finally, the third group explored the notion of "presence" in the absence of a body, using Samuel Beckett’s play Cette Fois as a focal point. This group was able to generate the greatest sense of presence in a highly simplified visual and auditory immersive environment (in the spirit of Beckettian plays), by having the audience lean in to hear a recording of Beckett that was competing with other auditory mesages from his text in the ambient environment. It was generally agreed that the group has succeeded in generating a sense of "presence" in the total absence of any live actor by these means.

Among the conclusions drawn with regard to the sense of presence evaluated by the different groups, it was determined that presence is perhaps less a characteristic of the involvement of a live actor, than the result of the ability to generate an energetic relationship between performance and/or installation and the audience. Indeed, even the presence that came from a live actor was stronger when the actor was "trained", that is, when the actor understood how to connect with the audience. If this energetic exchange can be achieved without an actual person present, and this seems to be the case, then an installation can evoke a powerful sense of presence.

Although these experiments took place in RL, they are relevant to the world of SL, especially within the context of efforts to develop Virtual Art. Many of the kinetic sculptures that are currently drawing interest in SL are attempting to create "an energetic relationship" with the audience. This is doubly so of so-called "reactive" sculptures, that is, kinetic sculptures which respond or modify their appearance or dynamics as a result of interactions with audience members. Many of these explorations in SL allow us to deepen our understanding of Virtual Art and its relationship to ourselves, both in SL and, eventually in RL.


Juria Yoshikawa said...

This is a really superb post that got to think differently about my own sl kinetic sculptures. So I thank you! All virtual artists creating work in this vein should step back and ask themselves whether or not it has presence. I just completed a large installation called "Alien Beach" (http://memespelunk.org/blog/?p=61) that I struggled to make feel "alive", anthropomorphic even. At one point I even set up a dummy me to welcome visitors to give the artwork some sense of "being". Strangely, this is something I cared a lot less about in my rl installation.

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