Presence in Virtual Worlds

There have been a lot of experiments conducted to establish how much people feel “present” in virtual words. Loosely, this is usually defined as how much a person reacts to the virtual objects as if they were real (this paper (pdf) gives a good sense of it in its first paragraph). One of my friends in a 3d virtual environment recently wanted to sit on a chair. He’d been so taken in by the quality of the illusion that for a moment he treated the virtual chair as if it actually could support his weight. This is presence, and it’s the zenith of what we aspire to.

Actually, I don’t think it is. I don’t have a nebulous feeling of ‘presence’ in VR, but then I don’t when I’m in a shop, or at work, and sometimes I specifically feel unpresent in the real world. If I’ve been reading a good book, I feel that I’m more in its world than in this one. I think that almost all of these experiments suffer from a way of thinking that almost negates what the experimenters themselves are hoping for. They all start from the assumption that the virtual world is not real, and there’s a difference between it and the real world.

In fact, when I’m in a new environment, real or virtual, I treat it the same. I explore, I try to work out the rules of this new space. I experiment. If I find that the chair in this environment is insubstantial and I can pass my hand right through it, I don’t think that the chair somehow isn’t real, I simply realise that it’s a new kind of real chair, a chair I can’t sit on. I’d be the same in reality if someone gave me an insubstantial chair.

Nobody reacts in a 3d environment as if they are simply being shown patterns of projected colours, just like nobody treats the TV they’re watching Schindlers List on as if it’s just a mesh of colours, or for that matter – nobody treats a book as a bunch of squiggles on sheets. Art is a virtual reality that we explore, experience and decode. In neither simulators nor the walking around world do we experience unfiltered reality. What we experience are the concepts that our environment suggests to us.

There’s no question in my mind that Crayola land, where some of my other friends taunted crudely drawn ducks, or the library, where I was briefly menaced by a ghost child while books flew around are real places. They are just spaces with different rules to spaces I’m used to, and spaces where the assumptions I’m used to don’t always hold. We spend a lot of our lives, particularly when we’re young, working out what is real and what isn’t, and it’s exhilarating to be in that place of possibilities. Reality is a puzzle, and we love to try to solve it.

One of the presence experiments that has been carried out many times is the Pit experiment (pdf). People are asked to conduct a simple task in the virtual environment, and then relatively suddenly are confronted with a huge hole in the floor. Physiological measures show that their heart rate goes up, and their skin conductance changes. Is it Presence? Have people responded to the ‘virtual pit’ in the same way as they would to a ‘real pit’?

The Pit Experiment

I don’t think so, even though when I was there, I nearly lost my balance stepping out over it. (Did me talking about it as if it was really ‘there’ bother you?) I responded to it exactly as I would respond to a real pit – that I knew I couldn’t fall into, but that’s because it was a real pit that I knew I couldn’t fall into. There’s a difference between a ‘real pit’, which contains the notion of something you can fall into and a real pit that you can’t fall into. I’ve jumped out of an airplane, strapped into a parachute, knowing I was completely safe, but that doesn’t mean my heart rate didn’t go up. I responded to it not as I would respond to a real fall, but as I would respond to a real fall where I was safe – a virtual fall.

Of course, it’s difficult to run the experiments to prove this – you’d have to have an insubstantial chair to give me (and how would you carry it?), or run an experiment with a pit that people couldn’t fall into (perhaps using wires?) and compare it with a pit that they really could fall into. It’s difficult to get ethics approval for truly potentially life threatening experiments, even to try to establish a baseline.

And here we find some of the more interesting brand of presence experiments in virtual worlds. Doing experiments virtually that are too unethical to do in the real world. There’s the famous Milgram experiment for example, difficult to get approval for these days, but the virtual version is fine (I think it should be a compulsory part of education to watch the video of some of the 35% of people refusing to give the shocks in the original experiment. It’s inspiring). I saw an experiment where a virtual woman chatted up men, some of whom found her attractive and felt guilty with who knows what effects on the long term health of their relationships. The Millgram experiment is not ethically challenging because of its effect on the actor who is pretending to be shocked, it’s ethically challenging because of its effect on the participants. If people do respond in the same way to the virtual one as they do to the real one, then it’s just as unethical. There is nothing more or less real in the Virtual Milgram experiment than in the “real” one.

In some ways it’s more disturbing. Just like the man in a relationship who wondered if he was a freak because he found himself fancying a virtual woman, it is challenging to our sense of what it means to be human to discover our emotions and cherished empathy responses can be tricked and played so easily. And perhaps this is where the most interesting work is, searching the psyche for what makes us tick, because after all, finding out how we respond to what is inside our own and other peoples heads is even more important than finding out how we respond to various forms of the outside world.

Virtual Worlds (Part 1)

I’ve been interested in virtual worlds since I first heard of them. Actually that’s a lie. I’ve always been suspicious of virtual worlds. I love mixed reality – virtual representations of real world things, or real world representations of virtual things – it has almost unbounded potential for usefulness, and virtual reality technology is great for games and storytelling, but how is pure virtual reality actually useful?

Dave Taylor has an interesting blog entry on his take on Second Life, and virtual worlds in general. I think he makes some good points, first about the user experience, which at least in Second Life needs a lot of work, and then later about the need or lack of it for realism in virtual worlds.

“My take: Second Life is an evolutionary step”

I agree that Second Life is an evolutionary step, but it’s a step backwards. Part of the beauty of the internet (I’m including web and various other services, such as IM etc.) is that when I’m online, I am disembodied, a pure spirit, floating in a sea of concepts. My ‘I’ is diffuse, and in a sense, I am simultaneously everywhere (or at most, a single step away from everywhere). My location in concept space is really only defined by my attention, which itself can be diffuse – on a server in Australia, learning about the behaviours of Finnish animals in one tab, while simultaneously listening to radio from the US, and keeping an eye on pictures posted by my friends on holiday in Russia. All this time, I am as easily accessible to those who know me as if I were standing right next to them, no matter where I or they are in “real” space. In concept space, I am right next to them.

This is a good thing. It is the kind of evolutionary step people are talking about when they write science fiction with “ascended” races. When we’re on the internet, we mimic as best we can many of the attributes that throughout the ages humanity has given to its gods. Omnipresence, omniscience, ability to be communicated with from anywhere. Pure spirit, existing in concept space. That is the next evolutionary step, and to anyone who has seriously used the internet, virtual worlds with their characteristic localising, their embodying, their tendency to demand your whole attention are an evolutionary step backwards, a seriously limiting experience. That is their nature and it is not something that can be fixed through technology.

This reason alone is enough to convince me that they are not the next leap forward.

However, I am a believer in the power of limitations. Great art is made by people who discover ways of making limits seem irrelevant, but it can’t be done without a deep knowledge of those limits. If we truly had no limits, then art would be boring. Limits and structure suggest and encourage different ways of interacting, and the kinds of limits imposed by virtual worlds can (when used in parallel with concept space rather than instead of it) help fix some of the problems that we humans have had in the ascent to concept space.

Serendipity

When you’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time, as you are in concept space, it’s awfully hard to bump into someone by chance. Without limitations, you see what you want to see, and talk to who you want to talk to, but actually that’s a pretty impoverished condition compared to the many interesting chance interactions that can occur to you when you’re limited to a particular body and location. Though we grasp at omniscience, until we actually have it, chance encounters are an important part of life and learning.

Teleprototyping

Sometimes, even in concept space, the concept or place that we’re reading about or talking about is a three dimensional, real world object, with solidity and function. No matter how abstracted we have become, it’s much quicker and more intuitive to give someone a parallel to the object in a world with similar constraints to the “real” world the object exists in. You can explore and learn by playing. If a picture of an object is worth a thousand words, how many more words is a functional, virtual prototype of the object worth?

Art

Art is always looking for new mediums to express itself in, and with a virtual world, it has an old one (reality) with a new twist. What could be better for giving people a new way of looking at the (real) things around them?

Communication

As humans, our communication relies much more on non verbal channels than any of the disembodied spirits floating in concept space like to admit. As we spend more time in concept space, we will come up with more and more ways of expressing our different modalities of communication in that space, but perhaps it’s easier just to pull across wholesale many of the ways we communicate in the “real” world. Particularly as our interaction with computers is so serial at the moment – keys, mouse clicks, mouse movements. Simulating what is essentially parallel communication is a big challenge until we get more and better peripherals, so borrowing from the real world is a good idea.

These are things that by their nature Virtual Worlds are good at – in some ways an improvement on the internet of concepts. In Part 2, I’ll talk about a mixed reality of concept space and virtual space. The ways websites are starting to locate (in a philosophical, not big brother sense) their users, and some ideas for how virtual worlds can support diffuse attention and concept-type interaction.