Why is presence so important for Virtual Reality?
– Sol Rogers
Presence is the magic of VR, the feeling that you’re actually in the virtual world. Presence will cause the user to suspend disbelief and believe they are in the virtual environment, reacting to stimuli as if they were in the real world. It’s the holy grail, the purpose of VR.
Constant improvement in the ability to create presence – through tech and content – will push the industry forward. To make someone truly believe they are experiencing another world is a powerful thing and with it comes great responsibility. As content creators, we have a duty of care to our users.
Right now it’s tough to create true presence, because for this to occur all your senses need to be convinced that you are in a new reality – this is a huge technical challenge. Currently, VR can satisfy our vision and hearing, and there are some significant developments in regards to touch, but there is still much work to do in regards to smell and taste.
Achieving a lifelike user experience in VR is now possible because of tremendous advancements in computer processing power, graphics, video and display technologies. But the tech needs to stay out of the way; it needs to be entirely inconsequential to the experience, otherwise, the spell is broken. Shattering the illusion can also be caused by hitting walls/ceilings with controllers, loss of tracking, tripping or hearing sounds unrelated to the experience, e.g., someone talking in the real world.
Content is king
While the tech is no doubt important, no user is going to suspend disbelief if the experience is awful! While resolution, latency, etc. are improving, our role as content producers in creating presence is to design with an incredible attention to detail resulting in high-definition visual fidelity that creates a truly believable world.
Context is also critical. The more you can relate to the VR experience and believe it (does it react in the way you expect it to?) the more you will be immersed. Ironically, you need some reality in virtual reality. If you put someone into an abstract world, it’s going to be harder to achieve presence.
Adding interactivity to the experience can dial up the immersion, but it needs to give the user some form of feedback – audio, visual or haptic – so that they feellike they are interacting with the environment. ‘Home: A VR Spacewalk’, the experience we created with the BBC, is a good example of going beyond the HMD to heighten immersion. Adding humans for interactivity doesn’t work because then you encounter the whole uncanny valley problem.
Getting the setup right
The set up is also important. You can’t expect someone to put on a headset and be immediately immersed, you have to play to the limitations of the hardware. It’s pointless trying to recreate something in VR if the hardware isn’t capable of delivering a believable experience. You are better off with a more limited set of interactions because you can do them successfully rather than trying to do something beyond the current technology, such as realistic walking.
That’s not to say the current technology won’t improve. Hardware advances are being made all the time, with better and faster GPUs and CPUs allowing us to create and run increasingly complicated and graphics-intensive experiences. We will be able to create not only more realistic-looking experiences but ones that we simply wouldn’t have been able to create while working on slower, less capable hardware. Furthermore, as HMDs get smaller, faster and lighter, there will be a marked difference in the ability to create presence. Untethered HMDs will significantly improve the VR experience, as will an improved field of view and higher screen resolutions.
However, until we can exactly recreate the world, create characters that behave as humans do and convince all our sense we are in an environment, we are going to struggle to achieve true presence. Until then, can strive to get as close as we can within the current constraints.
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