On presence, III

OK so, what was, I thought a fairly obscure ramble through ideas on presence, (I actually almost didn’t post anything about it at all) has generated a lot of interest. who’d have thought it? so anyway to re-cap …

Immersion seems to matter for virtual worlds, moreso than for LMSes (aka VLEs) or other technologies. Engagement isn’t the same as immersion, engagement really involves a critical stance apart from the medium being viewed. Presence improves our interaction and motivation in learning in different environments. Presence is a combination of mediated presence (“being there” aka immersion) + social presence (projection of ourselves, perception of others) + copresence (being somewhere with others) + self presence (or embodiment).

So what actually is embodiment?

At the moment I’m writing (or should be writing) the introduction to the book Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. Introductions are always tricky, because, if you’re introducing a book on a topic similar to one you’ve written before, there will be some overlap with previous introductions. Keeping it fresh forces you to refine your argument each time. With the ULVW intro I’m really bringing VWs down to two unique things, the 3D space and the avatar. The 3D space gives us the opportunity to fully experience the sense of “being there” in the virtual world. The avatar is a basis for us to create social presence and copresence, through being an attachment on which to hang our identities, or a body through which to create an identity, or portray one. Avatars give us a body image in that space.

However, avatars don’t just give us a body image, (we can actually have those to some extent through environments like this, with our gravatars). They also give us a body schema in the virtual world.

I said before that many media are immersive, we feel immersed in them. We feel like we are there. But it’s a formless, and bodiless form of being there. When we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we can feel like the world surrounds us, it absorbs our attention (psychological immersion) or in a 3D movie we can actually see it around us (perceptual immersion). However our bodies don’t actually have a presence in that space. One of my friends was playing Halo for the first time last week, and posted in FB “when i look down i can see my legs. Awesome” and yes, yes it is. Taylor in The social life of avatars used the phrase “through avatars our interaction in virtual worlds is grounded in the practice of the body” which is a fantastic phrase, because it sums it up so well. We have a body in that space. We can express ourselves through movement, we can feel awkward if someone stands too close to us. We have a locus for direct, personal, experience. When you have a body within an online environment, shit just got real.

How does embodiment happen? Well, our body schemata are plastic. For most of us. A prosthesis can feel part of us. The rubber hand illusion can freak us out. Our sense of selfhood is not necessarily located within our physical body, it can be transferred to an extension of that body. Including an avatar. If that happens, that’s embodiment. There’s a neurological basis for this happening. I don’t really understand the biology, but have learnt that if you say left inferior parietal cortex with enough conviction, that doesn’t really matter. But one day I would like to get the authors of this: “How the Human Brain Goes Virtual: Distinct Cortical Regions of the Person-Processing Network Are Involved in Self-Identification with Virtual Agents” by Shanti Ganesh, Hein T. van Schie, Floris P. de Lange, Evan Thompson and Danie¨ l H. J. Wigboldus, in the journal Cerebral Cortex to explain it to me in layperson’s terms. Studies also indicate that if you spend time in virtual worlds, when you recall the memory of being there, the same parts of your brain activate as in the real physical world. The strikethrough there is important. Because if we’re talking about experiences (the basis of cognitivist learning theories) then our brains don’t distinguish between the physical and the virtual. Here’s something in New Scientist about that http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18117-how-your-brain-sees-virtual-you.html  Biocca pre-empted a lot of this in his paper that I referenced in the first post on this http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/biocca2.html   “increases in self-presence are correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly, emotional development”. If we want our students to experience experiential learning in virtual worlds, then creating a feeling of embodiment is key.

For most of us. Remember I said that? Taking that cue from Biocca, for my PhD I asked groups of students about their experience of presence (all four types), I also asked them about their perceptions of the learning experience (I didn’t have access to the data on whether or not they did learn, so this was the next best thing). One in four of the students reported experiencing very low presence in the environment. Carrie Heeter asked similar questions in a study about 15 years ago now, on people’s sense of embodiment in a video image. 1 in 4 didn’t feel any. I recently did a survey of attendees of a virtual world installation at an art gallery.I asked them how many really didn’t feel they got anything out of it. the answer was 1 in 4. 1 in 4 people aren’t affected by the rubber hand illusion. According to Ganesh et al, 1 in 4 people don’t have a plasticity in body schema, their right inferior parietal cortex dominates, not their left one (see how that sounds authoritative when i say that?). Now I’m not making any claims here, but I think that’s probably a pattern. I’m also very pleased with myself for, I think, being the first person to spot that.

Oh, the other half of my survey. About the students’ perception of learning anything. Almost without exception, the students who experienced presence (in all of its forms) perceived the learning activity as worthwhile. Those that didn’t, didn’t. It was a smallish sample size (36) but the correlation was strong enough to be able to say that this is not by chance. In fact in quantitative data analysis you can do a statistical thing called a chi -squared test to work out what the probability is for this to just be a fluke. It’s called a p value or confidence value. 1 in 20 is ok, 1 in 100 is pretty good. The p value for this is 1 in 860 million (if i did my maths right). So that’s pretty solid.

So why does this matter so much for virtual worlds, when immersion doesn’t matter so much for other media in order to learn? Which was my original question really. Well three things possibly. One is that virtual worlds are so hard to get the hang of, you’ve got to really get something valuable out of it to find them worthwhile. Secondly remember, there are a lot of other forms of presence going on besides immersion. They don’t happen in other environments at all, cannot happen, but to observe them happening around you and not experiencing them yourself must be an alienating experience. Thirdly, if you’re just observing information, reading, writing, downloading uploading, then immersion isn’t important, but with the activities we were doing, where they were based on the learners having experiences, then if those experiences weren’t actually felt because the students weren’t embodied, then they must have been failry hollow activities for them. The fact that that matters is a good thing (it means we’re offering something unique for learners, that they can’t get anywhere else, which is “real” experiential learning). It also means that if we’re using them to their fullest extent, in the most meaningful pedagogical way, that there will be a quarter of the student base who will not get it, and may not benefit from it.

More on presence

This is the second part of a discussion on presence and its effect on learning and at some point will get round to answering the question asking what’s so special about the more immersive technologies if all technologies provide immersion?

First off, I think the discussion needs to create some definitions. This is what irritated me when I started looking at this, is that different terms exist for the same thing, and the same term is used to describe different things. There’s a run-down of the confusion in my thesis, where I might get a bit ranty about it. That’s at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/alumni/services/eportfolios/edrfap/doctoralstudy/childs_thesis_final.pdf pages 36/37 …so I’m not going to get into that again here. I’m not really wedded to these definitions, so if anyone wants to propose any others, then fine. But lets as a community try and come up with some we all agree with. The requirements are those with provenance, which are mutually exclusive and actually descibe something real.

In the last post I used the word presence to describe the sense of “being there” at a remote location, or in a virtual environment, which is how it’s often used. The problem is that there are different ways to experience presence, of which “being there” is only one. So we have one usage of the word “presence” which is nested inside another definition. I don’t know why this doesn’t seem to bother other people as much as it should. So … I’m suggesting we just use the word “presence” when we’re talking about this to refer to any and all types, and come up with another phrase (I’m going to throw in “mediated presence” as a suggestion) for the sense of “being there”. Mediated presence can be either distal presence for the experience of being at a remote (but real) location, or virtual presence if it’s computer-generated.

I talked about mediated presence a bit last time, and said that it’s probably equivalent to immersion. When we watch a movie we can feel like the world is real and around us. I remember watching a scene in a film at a cinema (Dead Calm) and a boom swung across the camera. Everyone in front of me ducked. For that moment they so felt that they were in the movie world that they thought the boom might hit them.  3D is great, and is more immersive (I sat with my eyes closed for chunks of Avatar because it was making me motion sick, I don’t get that with 2D) but 2D is still immersive enough. There’s perceptual immersion, where our vision is fooled into thinking we’re there, and psychological immersion, where we’re so absorbed in something that we’re caught up in the fictional world. Both of those are mediated presence. I also don’t think that helps with education. I used to teach Film Studies, and trying to get students to take notice of the expressionistic chiaroscuro in film noir, for example, when they were  really into the story was much harder. Critical reflection is more important in those circumstances. If you want to enjoy it though, immersion/mediated presence is.

But other sorts of presence do exist, which have already been mentioned in the comments to the last post. One of these is social presence. Social presence (in my definitions) is what we project when we’re in an online enviironment about ourselves. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Our ability to use the technology is one (affordances of technology aren’t intrinsic to the technology, they’re a function of what the tech does and how those features can be made use of by its users). Our expressiveness is another. Our comfort with the tech and with our audience. Our experience. It’s also a function of others’ ability to perceive it. So we use an avatar or photo, we add a profile, with personal and professional information, we learn to use font for EMPHASIS, or italics if the interface permits it or emoticons :-p We can use other devices too if we’re familiar with them like <showing off> pseudo html to indicate mood </showing off> or hashtags #overdoingitnow to add the nuances that are missing from spoken words when we use text. The irony is, that now since text is such a familiar madium in which we convey social presence, it has become far more capable of conveying tone and subtlety and nuance, than the spoken word. If we choose to use those paratextual features that is. Those less fluent can still be confused by “those weird symbols at the end of the sentences”.

Social presence is probably the most familiar form in which the word presence is used in a face-to-face context. We talk about stage presence, or classroom presence, and although we all know what it is, it’s difficult to pin down though. Again it’s ability to modulate tone, it’s assurance, it’s confident body language. Advice on classroom presence I’ve read says that it comes from knowing your subject. In part that’s true, but I’ve covered up not knowing what I’m talking about more than once by just knowing how to sound like I know what I’m talking about. I’m sure this is why we have vivae in doctoral programmes. So the examiners can judge whether you’ve aquired that skill too, since it’s the one that’s the key one in being an academic.

Usually mixed up with social presence (and in fact people tend to use the phrases interchangeably) is copresence, or the sense that you are co-located with someone. A brief reflection will convince anyone that these are distinct things though. You can sit in a lecture room and feel the social presence of the person on the stage, but still don’t feel a connection with them. And the same can be true the other way round. The audience can be just a sea of faces.You are in the same place, but there is no connection. Copresence is the converse of the concept of transactional distance. Even face-to-face with some people, and hearing them wittering on about a range of superficial things and you can feel no copresence with them, sure they have a lot of social presence, but they might as well be a face on a TV screen for all the experience of making a connection with them.

I did some research on videoconferencing for JISC and SURF (114 to 123 in the thesis, or published in the DIVERSE Conference proceedings 2007/08 (Childs, 2009)). And asked the students about how connected they felt to the lecturer at the other end. The answer was basically that when it was just the lecturer talking, and the students didn’t feel they had any social presence themselves, then they didn’t feel part of what was going on. Although the lecturers knew their stuff, it became difficult for the students to concentrate on what was being said. Basically, if you’re teaching, working on your own social presence isn’t enough, you need to enable your students’. It’s only in combination you achieve copresence, and it’s in that where you really motivate your students.

Lots of online environments support social presence. Blogging does. VLEs do. You can project your online identity and get a sense of others, but where virtual worlds hold their own are in the opportunites to support copresence. You can put up 3D models on a website, and other people can look at them, but nowhere else can you experience walking around that model with someone else and have them standing next to you and talking to you while you do it.

I’ve looked a lot at how students experience these different forms of presence in virtual worlds, and for some, it’s difficult. They don’t get that sense of connection with the world, they don’t feel immersed. But if there’s only one thing they do get out of being in that environment it’s that sense of copresence with others.

There’s one other aspect of presence I think applies to people’s interaction with online environments, and that’s self-presence, or embodiment. But more on that next time. Also, why I think perhaps immersion/mediated presence is important in learning in virtual worlds, where it isn’t in other media.

Childs, M. (2009) The role of presence in learning in telematic environments, in M. Childs, L. Schnieders, P. van Parreeren and J. Oomen (eds), DIVERSE Conference Proceedings 2007 & 2008, Haarlem; InHolland University, 73 -85

Immersion, presence and immersiveness

This post is prompted by a discussion I’ve been having in linkedin with many of the delegates from the Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds conference in Lisbon earlier this month. It’s extracted from the various posts I made, but also prompted by their comments, so thanks to them for the discussion.

The question was really about the role of immersion in general, and in virtual worlds in particular, and whether it’s different in different environments, and particularly what immersion is and how it differs from other forms of experience.

I think the problem with much of this is that we’re trying to explain experiences that aren’t necessarily ones we’re used to, in that the technology does provide new sorts of experiences. And that these things are defined differently by different authors, so we’re not always talking about the same thing.

For me, immersion is a very precise metaphorical term for that sense of feeling submerged in an experience. It’s like being immersed in water when you’re taking a bath. Making a certain set of technologies different because they’re so called immersive technologies is pointless as far as this is concerned, because any technology is immersive. You can lose yourself in a book, that’s becoming immersed in it. You can do the same in a play or a film. In those media it’s called the diegetic effect, the fictional world of the narrative becomes real just for the period that you’re part of it.

Is immersion the same as presence? I think it probably is. While you’re feeling immersed, you’re transported to that fictional world. There’s a paper by Sheridan MIT’s journal Presence in which he talks about the sense of actually being there when we experience these media. There’s a sense of departure from one reality and arrival at the other. We get in the flow of the text, of the narrative or whatever, but if something intrudes, someone talking in the cinema, or a cat jumping on your lap, then that connection with that fictional space is lost.

I rant about that a bit on a post in a previous blog. It’s in response to the BBC placing a trailer for a TV show over the top of the climax of Dr Who http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markchilds/entry/responses_to_nortongate/ worrying not just because it ruined the experience, but also because anyone who can do that obviously doesn’t get a large point of what art and entertainment are for, which is that sense of transportation and immersion.

Is immersion necessary for learning, or for engagement? On the whole, I don’t think it is. In fact some entertainment deliberately avoids immersion. Brecht called that Verfremsdungseffekt. I’m reading Midnight’s Children at the moment, it’s a good book and I’m enjoying it. But the frequent breaking of the author into the narrative, and the jumping from scenario to the next precludes that sense of flow, of being caught up with the story. The reader isn’t submerged in the same way. Actually that distant, sometimes critical reflective position is often referred to as engagement and there’s a great paper here on how that works in Grand Theft Auto http://www.jorisdormans.nl/article.php?ref=theworldisyours by moving between a sense of immersion and engagement, is perhaps how we get the most out of something. Experiencing both at once is supposedly possible too, a state called metaxis.

Two people can watch the same piece or experience the same technology and one can feel immersed and the other not. Ultimately immersion happens in your head, not on the screen. Technology has something to do with it though, but the problem with the idea of immersive technology is that it implies somehow that it creates that sense of immersion. It doesn’t but it can help. It’s more useful therefore to think of immersiveness as a series of technological factors that can contribute to immersion (resolution, frame rate, width of field, soundsurround, haptics, etc. the so-called depth and breadth of senses engaged) as objective measures, without being hung up on the issue that they don’t actually cause immersion.

I think one of the clarifications that can help is the difference between perceptual immersion and psychological immersion … this is in At the Heart of it All by Lombard and Ditton http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/lombard.html which together with Biocca’s The Cyborg’s Dilemma http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/biocca2.html is probably the most seminal article on this. Immersive technologies lead to perceptual immersion, but this might not necessary lead to psychological immersion. And psychological immersion can take place without recourse to messing with your perceptions. It depends on the individual. How it depends on the individual is one of the things I’m particularly interested in looking at. But more on that some other time.

Another thing that gets bundled into the same package as immersion is immediacy. Sometimes immersion is defined as the perception of non-mediation. I don’t think these are equivalent at all. Sure if you’re in an environment where you don’t notice the technology it can seem real (if technology ever gets that sophisticated) but actually the things that help mediate information can actually help you feel more immersed. An example: minimaps in Second Life. They pop up on screen, (so you’re aware of something between you and the virtual space) but once you’re accustomed to them, and incorporate them into the automatic way you interact with the world, they become extensions of your perception, they help you wayfind round the space, and so therefore add to the sense of immersion.

So we have three factors that are linked, but also have differences: immersion (=presence), immediacy (=non-mediation) and immersiveness (=realness, vividness).

I’m using the word presence for “being there” and I’m deliberately avoiding the word telepresence because that’s become an ambiguous word. Originally it was coined by Minsky to mean ability to act at a distance http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/Telepresence.html but was since expanded to mean anything at which you felt you were present at a remote location (like feeling a videoconference was actually a face-to-face meeting). Recent developments in technology have reappropriated the word to mean specifically technologies that enable you to act at a distance, not just experience being at a distance. For that I’m trying to get into using the phrase “distal presence” since that’s not ambiguous. But I just wish people would come up with a definition for a word, that’s different from their definition of a different word. And stick to it.

So if any technology can cause immersion, why get hung up on the more immersive technologies? Good question, but I’ve run out of space. Some other time.

Sheridan, T. (1992) Musings on telepresence and virtual presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 1 (1), 120 – 126