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March 23rd, 2016

The Presence: Virtual Reality Is The Last True Medium

“We have identity, we have presence and we have extension into the world … those are three really powerful concepts.”

2016 is Year Zero for virtual reality. After years of hype as the next big thing, this is the year when the technology finally makes its … presence … felt in the consumer market. Major tech brands have products ready and anticipation is in the air.

The use of the word presence is intentional. Virtual reality is all about presence. Often used as a buzzword for what virtual reality can offer, presence is what every developer, manufacturer and brand wants people to experience in virtual reality … an immersive experience that has the power to change lives. Or just make The Matrix seem just a little bit more plausible.

Over the next few months, presence in virtual reality may even overtake encryption as the tech media focus. Virtual reality has garnered a passing interest from consumers since Ivan Sutherland built the first VR display system in 1968, but after a number of false starts and dreadful pop culture references—1992’s “The Lawnmower Man” is the obvious example—brands and headset manufacturers are attacking on several “affordable” fronts.

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Take Sony’s Playstation VR, for example. Pre-orders of the $399 wearable device sold out in less than 10 minutes when they went on sale on March 22. The Facebook—owned Oculus Rift will start shipping at the end of March and there is reportedly a backlog of orders. HTC’s Vive will follow in April and Samsung’s Gear VR will be given away free with the new Samsung S7.


And presence is the key. Shortened from the original telepresence—a sensation of being somewhere else other than where they actually are—the 2016 version of virtual reality has presence as a fundamental value.

Virtual Reality: The Presence Of Mind

The trick to virtual reality … is a trick.

“Presence is really an extension of neuroscience and that is where it becomes interesting,” said Tom Impallomeni, CEO of sports-based platform Virtually Live, in an interview with ARC at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. “Essentially you are trying to trick the brain into thinking you somewhere that you aren’t. To do that, you have to trick all five senses.”

According to Dr. Kimberly Voll, a developer, designer and researcher at Radial Games (and a cognitive scientist, to boot), that trickery is one reason why getting presence right in virtual reality has not happened overnight. Dr. Voll said that comparisons with a world in which Keanu Reeves is The One are not all that far-fetched … especially when you consider how willing people are to ignore actual reality.

In an interview with ARC at the 2016 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Voll said:

How do we know that we are not in The Matrix? How do we know what reality is? One of the things that I love about the brain is just how much trickery goes on … what the brain decides to serve up as reality we just eat up because there is no other reality for us. It is giving us all this information and there are interpretive systems that exist and they all come together—we have identity, we have presence and we have extension into the world … those are three really powerful concepts.

As we noted above, virtual reality is a new kid on the block that has been around that block more than once. So the question is, why is virtual reality exploding right now?


Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, virtual reality was one of the cooler technologies on display, CNET stated. ARC’s editor-in-chief was also duly impressed. Last week’s Game Developer Conference was filled with virtual reality developers and people who wanted to escape reality wearing a headset. According to GDC attendees, a virtual reality session 12 months ago attracted about 20 people. In 2016 people needed to get in the line 30 to 40 minutes before the doors opened.

“There is a large amount of investment in the market,” said Impallomeni. “It is generally accepted that people are defining virtual reality in different ways—360 degree video is apparently VR, although it isn’t—but virtual reality is about presence, tricking the senses.”

See also: What It Is Like To Climb Mount Everest … In Virtual Reality

Schell Games CEO Jesse Schell said at GDC that virtual reality was about giving people an experience that they would not normally have, which would explain the excitement generated by photo-realistic and fantasy experiences. One of the most popular demos at GDC involved being put into an eagle’s head, while VentureBeat’s Jeff Grubb reported that Oculus Rift made him want to abandon his 2D static screen for gaming purposes.

“I think it’s important to realize that VR isn’t about 15 minute “experiences.” It is about breathing new life into older genres,” Grubb wrote.


“Fantastic Contraption”

Dr. Voll, who admits that she is excited to be “on the frontier of something” with her indie game “Fantastic Contraption,” thinks that 2016 will be a turning point for virtual reality … both good and bad. The opportunity to become immersed in a virtual world is very attractive but it needs to be treated with the respect that we show other forms of entertainment experiences, she said.

There are a whole bunch of things that are just dramatically different about virtual reality versus a screen. When you have a flat screen sitting in front of you as a developer, there is an agreement you enter into with the consumer of that content. It is not a verbal agreement but they are looking at a number of things—they are already agreeing, contributing and acknowledging that they want to be part of that experience … any time that ceases they can close their eyes and the experience goes away. The consumer has agency to escape that experience. When you are in virtual reality, you can close your eyes but the sensations of being there—the presence—remain.

Mark Barlet from The AbleGamer’s Foundation sees the notion of presence in a different way. He said that he was uncomfortable with the immersive feeling that virtual reality headsets gave him, citing the fact that numerous vendors at GDC were keen to bring physical objects into the experience.

“Do gamers want presence in the game?” Barlet said, in an interview with ARC. “If that is what you want … you can join a LARP [live-action-role-playing] group. If you want to run through a forest and swing a battleaxe around … you can do that. “

Presence Needs To Be More Than A Buzzword

The thought of exchanging the comfort of a living room for the chance to run through the woods with people dressed as goblins is attractive to some (LARPing is actually quite popular), virtual reality has important issues to consider.

Little actual research has been done into the effects that virtual reality can have on the brain. Questions abound of what it will do to a child in the development stage. Somebody could unpack a headset at home, fire it up and enjoy the feeling of presence … until it triggers an unexpected serious and traumatic reaction. Or at the very least makes them throw up. Researchers have no way of knowing the full spectrum of effects until virtual reality is in the hands of millions of people.

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Presence and immersion in a virtual setting is still a nascent experience for the majority of people. Due diligence should not take a back seat, said Dr. Voll. Companies need to understand that people may experience real trauma in virtual reality and it is better to undertake research now as opposed to 10 years down the road when presence is less of a buzzword and more of an admission of liability.

“As a university professor, I am sensitive to not only the power of that our words have, but the role that they play and our ability to do due diligence in these spaces,” Dr.Voll said. “My ability to talk about presence and immersion and flow and what those things mean concretely is really important because I can say this has presence or it doesn’t … but when something becomes a buzzword, that definition grows to encompass so many things—people’s hopes and dreams or even disparaging remarks. It loses the power of the word and then I need a new word to talk about the issues.”