Mel Slater's Presence Blog

Thoughts about research and radical new applications of virtual reality - a place to write freely without the constraints of academic publishing,and have some fun.

24 November, 2007

RAVE in Barcelona

I attended PRESENCE 2007: The 10th Annual International Workshop on Presence in Barcelona 25-27th October. It was organised locally by Starlab, who run the PEACH network. The local organisation and especially the design aspects were excellent (as was the food).

About the conference itself – I was disappointed. This series was started in 1998. I found it strange that after 10 of these conferences the number who actually attended in Barcelona (as opposed to those who may have registered) was less than those who attended in 1998. It cannot be location – the 1998 conference was held near Martlesham (Ipswich, UK) - certainly … no less attractive a location than Barcelona. Also, in 1998 there was a spirit, a sense of adventure, excitement, also some level of shared understanding of what we were talking about – ‘presence’ in virtual reality. This year’s Barcelona conference – it was a bit dull. The talks were across such a spectrum of interests and applications that anyone not knowing that this was supposed to be a ‘presence conference’ would not have had a clue – was this a general conference on human-computer interaction, media studies, what?

Endless Debate
I’m not going to speak about the quality of the papers, who am I to say? - especially, strangely and surprisingly, I seemed to be at a conference where this was not … my field. I’m talking about the lack of focus, and I would add the lack in many talks of the kind of precision that is necessary to get a field such as this off the ground.

Anyway, it has come to that point: I don’t think that the term ‘presence’ can be used any more. The days of endless debate about the ‘true meaning’ are over, for me. I’m no longer going to rave about presence. Instead I’m going to rave.

Real Actions / Virtual Environments – RAVE

Why do people smile at an avatar that is smiling at them, when they know full well that no one is there, and no one can see their smile? Why do they become anxious when standing in front of a deep virtual hole in the ground, when they know for sure that there is no hole there? Since the advent of virtual reality in the 1980s it has been well known that not only do people have a feeling of being transported to the place depicted by a virtual environment, but they also tend to act as if they were really there.

This RAVE phenomenon, is at the core of what constitutes my domain of interest. I'm interested in how, within a virtual reality, people act, how they respond, and why. The focus in some particular research may be, for example, on brain imaging, and in another it may be on some aspect of motor behaviour, or the distribution of attention, or emotional responses, etc., or any combination of these. I am not interested in studies that rely on questionnaires or factor analyses of such questionnaire results, and which might normally fall in the area of communication studies, or broadly within the domain of human-computer interaction. The focus is clear: people tend to act realistically in response to virtually generated sensory data. I want to understand why it happens scientifically, and what we can do also as engineers to make it even better.

Also I do not take a narrow view of ‘virtual environments’. Of course there are the traditional means of delivering virtual reality – head mounted displays, Cave systems, large wall displays, and so on. I include also mixed reality, augmented reality. Here the focus shifts slightly, because it is not at all a question of ‘being there’, since you are there in physical reality, only with some augmented sensory data that is generated virtually. So the interesting question in these circumstances is: to what extent do you respond realistically to what is depicted by the augmented sensory data? In this case there are circumstances when the problem is trivial: You see a sign in an augmented reality saying “turn left” and you turn left – nothing much to rave about.

There is also the so-called ‘book problem’ – can you rave about a book? I will deal with this another time, since it raises some issues that are beyond the ideas I want to present today.

This RAVE phenomenon has profound ramifications across many dimension
  • Neuroscience and Psychology – what is it about the way the brain processes sensory signals that makes it possible for relatively poor simulations of reality to spark such a high degree of realistic activity? How can we use this understanding to design better environments?
  • Neuroscience of the body - Even the very notion of the human body and our relationship to our own bodies can be transformed. This has very deep implications for the scientific study of body processing and consciousness.
  • Computer Science and Engineering – given understanding about the psychological and neural basis of this phenomena, how can we build better systems, that maximise the probability for the maximum number of people … to rave?
  • Applications - to the extent that people show such realistic responses, various fields of endeavour can be approached in radically novel ways: psychotherapy, ergonomics, mission training, industrial prototyping and education to name but a few. When we add the capability for such virtual environments to be shared by many people, we also add a vast range of additional applications, such as remote negotiations and meetings, virtual travel, virtual conferences, and so on.
  • Philosophy - what are the implications for our notion of reality? Is what we have thought of as reality simply one amongst many parallel realities that we now inhabit?
  • Entertainment - there are profound new possibilities for entertainment - for example, a person could lead multiple parallel lives - working in the office all day answering emails in “this life”, a private detective in the other “parallel life” within a shared virtual reality. An executive by day, a belly dancer by night.

In our work in the PRESENCCIA project we have been exposing people to a scenario in which a fire breaks out in virtual reality. They are in a virtual bar, and there are some virtual people there, and eventually there is fire. This takes place in a Cave type system, so that they have the capability to move their whole bodies through the virtual (and corresponding in this case to the real) space. So can we make people run out of the Cave to escape the virtual fire? If not, then no matter what scores they may give in answers to ‘presence questionnaires’ --- they have not demonstrated presence. If they had a ‘feeling of being there’, there in the fire, wouldn’t they run away from it? Well you say, ‘at the cognitive level’ they ‘know’ that there is no fire, so they won’t run. OK, so they are not ‘present’. Maybe they are just a … bit present. Being a bit present is fine, but unless we can demonstrate real actions in a virtual environment, then we have not really demonstrated presence.

It is a worthy scientific goal to try to understand the conditions under which people will run. Surely this is far more fruitful than understanding the conditions under which they will put some tick marks in one place on a questionnaire rather than another, or to have endless debates about the true meaning. Presence, or now I would say rave - means … they run out. This is simple and clear. Sorry for raving on about it.