Achieving presence + immersion in virtual reality

Creative Virtual Reality Eyes Graphic.

Reality is a personal experience, right? In the world of virtual reality, it goes beyond firsthand experience; state-of-the-art technology is key to creating a ‘reality’, especially technologies bring you to the point where you feel they’re invisible. The most believable virtual reality experiences are the ones we don’t notice has been fabricated, and that’s when virtual reality presence is achieved.

What is presence?

Presence is the perception of physically existing in and engaging with a non-existing world. According to TechCrunch, virtual reality presence can be divided into three main subcategories: “personal, social and environmental. Personal presence refers to the user perceiving that they physically exist within a virtual world. Social presence involves interactivity with other simulated or real entities within the virtual world. And environmental presence occurs when the virtual world seems aware of the virtual reality user and reacts accordingly.”

When this presence is achieved for a sustained period of time, whisking the virtual reality user away into an imaginary world and reaching a state of consciousness where the user suspends disbelief, true immersion occurs.

The importance of powerful technology

Tricking the human brain into viscerally believing an illusion to be true takes a lot of work. Imagine waking up, fluttering your eyes open and sliding out of a warm bed, shuffling down the hallway across a cold floor towards the bathroom, flicking on the light switch and turning the faucet to brush your teeth. As you squeeze the toothpaste out of its tube, a lagged pixelated mess scatters on the fine bristles of your toothbrush. Poof – the illusion is gone.

To achieve true virtual reality immersion, even the most mundane of events – like your morning toothbrushing routine –  needs high-speed graphics processing, high image resolutions, low latencies and great visual quality; all while remaining out of sight by eliminating lag times and slow responses to stimuli. It takes a lot of computing power to re-create mundanity – a glitch in an immersive virtual reality environment is anything but invisible, and disbelief is a lurking beast.

Embodying the narrative

For virtual reality technology to be truly immersive, a crucial element is a perfectly-designed story world, with elaborate richness and granular detail. This world must be presented with a full sensory experience that goes beyond visual and aural. The fragrance of roses in a garden, the deafening hum of silence in outer space, the chill of the Antarctic, the texture and slight discolouration of single toothbrush bristles – all these details add to suspended disbelief, and ultimately contribute to truly embodying a character within a story world.

The fundamental element in all this is us – human beings. Without our willingness to participate intimately in the experience, virtual reality immersion can’t happen, and we must be human to affect humans. We need to remember that, at the end of the day, the story is the main character, and technology is but a supporting actor.

If you’re interested to learn more about using virtual reality to tell stories, come to our Vivid Ideas event – Storytelling in a Virtual World on June 6, 2-4PM at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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