Guest Post: Presence – The Powerful Sensation Making Virtual Reality Ready for Primetime

Evolving the Human Machine Interface Part III

The concept of Presence in Virtual Reality (VR) has been gaining popularity over the past year, particularly within the gaming community. With consumer VR devices in development from Oculus, Sony, and more than likely Microsoft, Presence has become the metric by which we evaluate all VR experiences. But Presence is difficult to describe to someone who has never tried VR. “It’s like I was actually there. It made me feel like what I was seeing was actually happening to me, as though I was experiencing it for real,” is how one colleague described the experience.

Presence in VR triggers the same physical and emotional responses one would normally associate with a real world situation, it is the wonderfully magical experience of VR. But how is Presence achieved? While many research studies have provided a variety of subjective descriptions for Presence, there seem to be 3 common variables that affect tele or virtual Presence most:

1.  Sensory input: at minimum the ability to display spatial awareness

2.  Control: the ability to modify one’s view and interact with the environment

3.  Cognition: our individual ability to process and respond to sensory input

Because the nature of VR isolates the user from real world visual input, if the device’s sensory input and control are inadequate or missing then the effect of Presence fails, the results of which are oftentimes met will ill side effects: You feel sick to your stomach!

Sensory Input

For those who have tried VR, at some point or another you’ve felt queasy. That point which the experience turns from wonder to whoa, has been an unfortunate side effect throughout the development of VR. As Michael Abrash presented at Valve’s Steam Dev days, the hurdles needed to overcome VR sickness and achieve Presence are within reach. In the video below, Michael expertly summarizes the technical hurdles to achieve a believable sense of Presence in VR.

“What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be within Two Years” Steam Dev Days 2014

Michael Abrash, Valve Softwrae


To achieve a minimum level of Presence, head tracking is used to display the VR image to match the users own head position and orientation. While this helps to create the sense of spatial awareness within VR, it still doesn’t make someone’s experience truly “Present.” To do that, we need to add the representation of ourselves, either through an avatar or our own body image. Viewing our physical presence in VR, known as body awareness, creates an instant sense of scale and helps to ground the user within the experience. In the video sample below, Untold Games is creating body awareness through avatar control.

“Loading Human, true body awareness” Untold Games 2014

Without body awareness, VR can feel more like an out-of-body experience. Everything “looks” real and the user has spatial awareness, but the user’s body and movements are not reflected therefore the user does not feel actually present. Combining body awareness with VR’s spatial awareness creates a strong bond between the user and the experience.


The third perimeter of Presence is us. The feeling of Presence in VR is directly influenced by our personal ability to process and react to environmental changes in the real world. It’s likely that many of us will not have the same reactions to the experiences within VR. If you get sick riding in cars easily, then VR motion will give you the same sensation. If you’re afraid of heights, fire, spiders, etc. you’re going to have the same strong reactions and feelings in VR. Our individual real life experience influences our perception and reactions to VR. This can lead to some interesting situations, in particular with gaming. For example one player may be relatively unaffected by a situation or challenge, while another may be strongly affected.

Obviously the conditions of Presence are perceptual only. In most cases we’re not at the same physical risk in virtual environments as we would be in real life. But our own cognition coupled with VR’s ability to create Presence is why VR is such a popular field for everything from gaming and entertainment to therapy and rehabilitation.

Once we start to overcome these technical hurdles and provide a basic level of Presence, we next need to understand what it will ultimately enable. What does Presence provide for us in an experience other than merely perceiving the experience as real-like? We’ll explore that idea in the next segment, and try to understand where Presence will have the most impact.

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