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Integrating the world of presence theory: Illusion, pretence, attending, and pretending

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We selected four fragments from the world of presence theory for particular attention. These are: presence as a perceptual illusion, as a pretence, as attending to an external world, and as pretending the virtual is real. We reflect on and try to unite these fragments into a fairly coherent and perhaps more general view of the nature of presence, one that may help integrate insights into both 'natural' and mediated presence. One conclusion from this work is that when we feel present, we believe that what is happening is real, in the moment, whether it is in the physical world or in a virtual reality (VR). In other words, when we feel really present in an environment it is real for us. If presence in VR is an illusion, so is presence in the physical world. Presence in VR requires imagination and belief (though not make-believe), and so does presence in the physical world.
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Integrating the world of presence theory:
Illusion, pretence, attending, and pretending
John Waterworth1 and Ingvar Tjostheim2
1Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden (
2Norwegian Computing Center, Oslo, Norway2
1. Corresponding author: John Waterworth, Umeå University, 90187 Umeå, Sweden
2. A version of this paper appears in the Proceedings of Presence 2020, 18th conference of
the International Society for Presence Research (ISPR)
We selected four fragments from the world of presence theory for particular attention.
These are: presence as a perceptual illusion, as a pretence, as attending to an external world,
and as pretending the virtual is real. We reflect on and try to unite these fragments into a fairly
coherent and perhaps more general view of the nature of presence, one that may help
integrate insights into both ‘natural’ and mediated presence. One conclusion from this work is
that when we feel present, we believe that what is happening is real, in the moment, whether it
is in the physical world or in a virtual reality (VR). In other words, when we feel really present in
an environment it is real for us. If presence in VR is an illusion, so is presence in the physical
world. Presence in VR requires imagination and belief (though not make-believe), and so does
presence in the physical world.
Keywords: Spatial presence, illusion, pretence, attending, belief, make-believe,
imagination, metaphor.
1 Introduction
We start the paper by providing a brief overview of several different theoretical views of
the nature of spatial presence. From that, we select four fragments from the world of presence
theory for particular attention. Briefly stated these are: presence as a perceptual illusion, as a
pretence, as attending to an external world, and as pretending the virtual is real. These are very
different views of presence which we chose for their popularity (their level of general
acceptance as serious accounts by the presence research community) and their power and
scope to explain important aspects of the presence experience, as well as our aims in this paper.
Our aims are i) to reflect on and if possible, to unite these fragments into a more coherent and
general view of the nature of presence, and ii) to use this united view to integrate insights into
‘natural’ and mediated presence. Our underlying interest is the presence experience, what it is,
under whatever conditions it occurs.
Many theorists agree with our view that presence can be experienced in the physical or
material world, as well as in mediated environments. The latter class of experiences is often
referred to as telepresence or mediated presence. Many give the former presence in the
physical world a special status, on the assumption that a mind-independent external reality
exists. Manzotti & Pepperell (2012: 6) write: “Our access to the world is understood, to a greater
or lesser extent, to be direct rather than mediated, representational or illusory.” A key question
for presence theorists is how, and if, ‘natural presence’, as an experience, is different from
mediated presence.
1.1 A brief overview of presence theories
In Table 1 we present selected definitions of telepresence from the 1980s and 1990s,
highlighting some key words for our present purpose.
Ta bl e 1 Some early definitions of presence
Akin et al. (1983)
The word telepresence means remote presence…. At the worksite,
the manipulators have the dexterity to allow the operator to perform
normal human functions. At the control station, the operator
receives sensory feedback of sufficient quantity and quality to
provide a feeling of actual presence at the worksite.
Sheridan’s (1986)
(Telepresence means) “visual, kinesthetic, tactile or other sensor
feedback from the teleoperator to the human operator that is
sufficient and properly displayed such that the human feels that he is
present at the remote site, and that the teleoperator is an extension
of his own body.
Steuer (1992)
“the extent to which one feels present in the mediated
environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.
Lanier and Biocca
(1992: 156)
Presence consists of the sensation of being in a certain
environment” (i.e., the perception of being inside a collection of pre-
existing extra-mental objects); telepresence is “the experience of
being in an environment thanks to a means of communication”
Bates (1992)
One of the keys to an effective virtual world is for the user to be able
to “suspend disbelief." That is, the user must be able to imagine that
the world portrayed is real, without being jarred out of this belief by
the world's behavior.
Slater and Usoh
….presence in an IVE involves the commitment of the person's entire
neurology to the "suspension of disbelief'' that they are
"somewhere else" rather than where their physical body really is...
Lombard and
Ditton (1997)
“An illusion of non-mediation occurs when a person fails to
perceive or acknowledge the existence of a medium in his/her
communication environment and responds as he/she would if the
medium were not there.
Draper et al.
“A m en ta l st ate i n wh ic h a us er feels physically present within the
computer-mediated environment.
Riva (1999: 91)
“the key issue for developing satisfying virtual environments is
measuring the disappearance of mediation, a level of experience
where the VR system, and the physical environment disappear from
the user’s phenomenal awareness.
Slater (2002)
the total response to being in a place, and to being in a place with
other people. The ‘sense of being there’ is just one of many signs of
Somewhat more recent definitions of presence are presented in Table 2. The term perception
plays a more prominent role, and we notice the words sensory and action occurring frequently.
Ta bl e 2 More recent definitions of presence
Heeter (2003)
Presence is contextual. Presence is a series of movements when
cognition and perceptual reactions are closely tied to current
sensory impingements. Presence occurs during periods of time when
cognition (process such as perception, attention, learning, thought
and affect ….) is closely tied to current perceptual stimuli.
Lee (2004:37)
Presence is a ‘‘psychological state in which virtual (para-authentic or
artificial) objects are experienced as actual objects in either sensory
or nonsensory ways.’’
and Slater (2005)
Te le p re se n ce i s t h e propensity of people to respond to virtually
generated sensory data as if they (that is what is visualized) were
Floridi (2005:661)
The new model shifts the perspective from an internal and
subjective assessment of a peculiar experience - presence as
epistemic failure to an external and objective evaluation - presence
as successful observation.
Wirth et al.
Spatial Presence is regarded as a two-dimensional construct. The
core dimension is the sensation of being physically situated within
the spatial environment portrayed by the medium (“self-location”).
The second dimension refers to the perceived possibilities to act.
Riva (2011: 25)
Presence is “the intuitive perception of successfully transforming
intentions into action
Waterworth et al.
(2015: 36 and 48;
2020: 74)
“We define presence as the feeling of being located in a perceptible
external world around the self”. “Varying feeli ng s of prese nce re fl ect
the extent to which attention is focused on the external
Tur ne r (2014)
Mediated presence as pretending. “We propose that make-believe
is a plausible psychological mechanism which underpins the
experience of mediated presence”.
Below we focus on four different views of what presence is, selected from those above, which
we consider to be serious contenders in the field. Another reason for choosing these four views
is that we think they raise interesting issues, for example, the meaning and role of illusions, the
plausibility of suspension of disbelief, and of the value and significance of the accuracy of
simulated experience in relation to presence experiences. They all are principally theories of
what is known as physical presence, which we see as the fundamental, the core aspect of
presence experiences. We chose not to look more broadly at some other important
formulations, such as presence as action (or of the perception of being able to act) and
presence as the execution of intentions, because we these views can be seen as following from
spatial presence experiences of the surrounding reality in which we feel ourselves to be.
A guiding insight for our work is that mediated presence (or telepresence) in a convincing VR
and the feeling of being present in the physical (or actual) world are fundamentally similar, if
not the same. This leads us on to hope that not only can an understanding of physical presence
help us to understand mediated presence, but also that successful models of mediated
presence can help us understand the nature of experiences of the world.
One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Merleau-Ponty (1962: 408),
I am conscious of the world through the medium of my body” (1962:94-95). It is from the
body that I perceive the world. Without a body, I have no place from which to perceive the
world. “Where is” begins with the location of the body. It locates me in a place.” [….] “my
existence as subjectivity is merely one with my existence as a body and with the existence of the
world, and because the subject that I am, when taken concretely, is inseparable from this body
and this world.
By examining the strength and weaknesses of different theoretical accounts of presence, our
aim is to derive a composite view that is more comprehensive in its explanatory scope than any
of these (or other) views in isolation.
2 Four fragments of presence theory
In this second section, we outline what we see as four important fragments of presence
theory. Each has contributed to our understanding of presence, but none provides a completely
adequate explanation of this complex phenomenon.
2.1 Presence as the illusion of non-mediation
One of the most highly cited definitions of presence is the one by Lombard and Ditton (1997).
They conceptualize telepresence as a kind of illusion, the perceptual illusion of non-mediation.
Therefore, they regard (tele)presence as a property of a person. It results from an interaction
between formal and content characteristics of a medium and characteristics of the media user,
and therefore it can and does vary across individuals and across time for the same individual.
However, they do not explain or discuss the use of the term “illusion”, which can have more
than one interpretation.
In the same vein, to Riva (1999:91)the key issue for developing satisfying virtual environments
is measuring the disappearance of mediation (our emphasis), a level of experience where the
VR system and the physical environment disappear from the user’s phenomenal awareness.
This is a an almost ubiquitous and very influential view of presence, resonating with the blind
man’s cane example of Merleau-Ponty (1962) and the notion transparency in HCI. The blind
man walks down the street, exploring the world with his cane. He is not primarily aware of the
cane, but of what he perceives with its active use. In the context of telepresence and mediated
presence, the medium (the display and the input devices) correspond to the cane. The VR
technology disappears for the perceiver, and becomes part of the here-body experience (Ihde,
2.2 Presence as pretence (a “simulated semblance”)
Mel Slater suggested (Slater, 2003) that we need different words for the different meaning of
presence used by various researchers. What he means by presence could, perhaps more
accurately, be labels pretence. According to one definition in Webster’s online dictionary, this
means: “An artful or simulated semblance”. A key point is that by using the word “pretence”
here, Slater is suggesting that the VR, the simulation, is pretending to be the corresponding
place in the physical word. Earlier (Slater, 2002) had defined presence as: “the total response to
being in a place, and to being in a place with other people. The ‘sense of being there’ is just one
of many signs of presence - and to use it as a definition or a starting point is a category error:
somewhat like defining humour in terms of a smile” (p. 7).
Slater (2003) indicates that the more the immersant has the same total response as would be
the case in the physical world, the higher the degree of experience presence. For Slater,
presence seems to be about form, not content. It should not be confused with degree of
interest in, nor emotional engagement with, the contents of an environment.
2.3 Presence as attending to an external world
Our own view of presence is that it is a feeling that arises from more attention being to the
world surrounding the body, as compared to attention directed to the world of thoughts and
other internal mental constructions (Waterworth & Riva, 2014; Waterworth & Waterworth,
2001, 2003, 2006; Riva et al., 2004, 2011, 2015; Waterworth et al., 2010; 2015, 2018, 2020). As
Waterworth et al. (2020: pages 67-88) put it: “A well-calibrated sense of presence is needed so
that we can identify when and to what extent we are dealing with internal representations of
past, possible future, or imaginary events as compared to when we are dealing with current
events actually happening in our present environment. When we focus more on the former, we
are mentally absent from the world to some extent and experience a low level of presence in
our environment, whereas focusing more on the latter on concrete rather than abstract
information is accompanied by a stronger feeling of presence. Recognition of this absence-
presence dichotomy is an important step in understanding of what presence is for, and
therefore what it can potentially do.
From this theoretical perspective, an external world whether mediated or not will give rise
to a sense of presence, of being present in that world, in direct proportion to the extent to
which the individual pays attention to that world. We agree with Slater (2003) that it is
important to distinguish presence from emotional engagement, otherwise the concept of
presence will lose any distinctive meaning but emotional engagement will have an impact on
presence, through its effect on attentional selection.
2.4 Presence as pretending
In a series of interesting and provocative publications. Turner and his colleagues argue for the
importance of belief to real world presence and of pretending (to believe) or make-believing, to
computer-mediated presence. Sometimes these authors use the word “pretence” to mean a
pretend situation a situation whose conjuring requires pretending not in Slater’s use of the
word to mean “simulation”.
Tur ne r et al. (2014: 1) suggest that: “A p ri nc ip al , bu t l ar ge ly u ne xp lo red, u se o f ou r cog ni ti on
when using interacting technology involves pretending. To pretend is to believe that which is not
the case, for example, when we use the desktop on our personal computer we are pretending,
that is, we are pretending that the screen is a desktop upon which windows reside. But, of
course, the screen really isn't a desktop”.
Tur ne r (2016b) st ates that when we play a com put er g ame we te mpora ri ly bel ieve tha t w e are
killing aliens”. At some reflective level we know we are not killing aliens, of course, but we have
the vivid experience that we are (thanks to the game technology and media content). This is
presence seen as the experiential illusion of non-mediation but is it pretending? Pretending
seems to be characterised by not believing, not by the temporary belief that a mediated
experience is real. We return to this issue in Section 4.
3 Presence and perceptual illusions
In this section we examine the nature of perceptual illusions a bit more closely, given
that on the face of it at least most of the above accounts of presence can be understood as
seeing it as resulting from some form of illusion. The concept of illusion is closely related to that
of belief. To t he b es t of ou r k no w le d ge , Turner is the onl y theorist to discuss belief, which we
see this as another key concept for a more general understanding of the characteristics of
3.1 Views on illusions
There are a number of different accounts of perceptual illusions. The psychologist Osvaldo Da
Pos (1996, 1997, 2008) distinguished between two kinds. The first are the psychophysical
illusions that are discrepancies between what we perceive, for example redness, and the
physical, not perceivable variables, for example wavelength, which are known to be correlated
(Da Pos, 1997: 37). The second are the phenomenological illusions. These are discrepancies
within the phenomenal world. When these occur, the same perceived object appears at one
time with some characteristics and at another time with different characteristics.
According to Reynolds (1988) the psychological concept of illusion can be defined as a process
involving an interaction of logical and empirical considerations. Common usage suggests that an
illusion is a discrepancy between one’s awareness and some stimulus. (Reynolds, 1988:) After
proposing and rejecting five definitions of illusion based on this usage, he redefines illusion
without reference to truth or falsity, as: “a discrepancy between one’s perceptions of an object
or event observed under different conditions.” (Reynolds, 1988: 217).
Figure 1 The Müller-Lyer Illusion and the Necker Cube (public domain images)
Byrne (2009) argued that there is no direct path from the persistence of illusion to the belief-
independence of experience. To him, the ller-Lyer illusion (s ee Figure 1) inv olves a b elie f tha t
one line is longer than the other, and another, more reflective belief that they are of the same
length. This is relevant to the way presence may work; we may know, reflectively, that what we
experience in a VR is not really happening, but our experience is that it is and, in the moment of
experiencing, we may actually believe that it is happening.
Tur ne r (e. g. 2016a ) make s the same point, al though he e quate s m ediated p res ence with make -
believing, with pretending to believe, rather than actually believing which reduces the
coherence of his position, unless we are pretending to experience an illusion. Turner and
colleagues state that make-believe “is a form of cognition which is decoupled from the real
world and which enables us to explore and engage with fictional or imaginary worlds” (Turner et
al., 2014).
Voss et al. (2011) pos it the notion of the spectator as surrogate body. The word Leihkörper
literally means “loan body.” Thi s conce pt e mphas izes t he bas ic structure of il lu sion t hat inform s
the cinematic experience. Voss et al. argue that cinema is an illusion-forming medium and that
cinematic illusion emerges from the spectator’s engagement with the virtual or loan body of the
film. Their thesis is that it is “only the spectator’s body, in its mental and sensorial-affective
resonance with the events on-screen, which “loans” a three-dimensional body to the screen
and thus flips the second dimension of the film event over into the third dimension of the
sensing body (2011:145). Voss and her colleagues build on Michael Polanyi’s (1966) work on the
tacit dimension.
3.2 An example: the sinister watcher
Imagine that you are out late at night, walking alone, taking a short-cut to get home. It is dark
and there seems to be no-one else around. Your walk takes you through a particularly secluded
area, perhaps a path through some woods, across a park, or down dark and deserted streets.
Yo u wa n te d t o ge t ho me q u ic k ly, so y ou c h os e th i s route. But now you start to feel afraid. You
see what looks like the figure of a person in the middle distance, difficult to see clearly in the
darkness. You know that you have to walk close to this figure to get home. As you get closer,
you get the clear impression that the person you first saw vaguely from the distance is watching
you, and perhaps waiting for you to get nearer. You start to feel afraid and already you feel very
present in that environment much more so than when you first saw “the watcher”. You are
acutely aware that you have no other way home, except to pass the figure or turn and retrace
your stepswhich would take a long time (and mean turning your back on the potential danger.
Yo u dra w c l os er, e v er m o re c on v in ce d th at t h e fi gu re is watching you, and that he or she has a
sinister intent. Still, you press on, heart beating fast and acutely aware of your presence in this
place, with this person. Suddenly, as you get quite close to the figure, you realise that it is not, in
fact, a person at all! It is a misshapen, sawn-off tree trunk and empty crate, with an old paper
sack that has somehow come to be attached to the top. You relax, you walk on breathing more
deeply and calmly, laughing at your own mistake, which you replay in your mind. You will your
friends about this funny episode when you get home- Yo u no l on ge r fe el af ra i d, o r ve r y p re se n t
in the place. See Figure 2 for an artistic interpretation of this kind of shifting perception.
Figure 2 – Theodor Kittelsen - Det rusler og tusler rasler og tasler, 1900
(Creepy, Crawly, Rustling, Bustling; public domain image)
This story of the sinister watcher, who wasn’t actually there, illustrates how we can readily
misperceive our environment, seeing it in different ways at different times, and that this can
have profound effect on our sense of presence, of being there. In this example, high presence
results from a misperception an illusion. But that is not to say that presence is an illusion, it
could equally be the case that the presence-inducing perception turned out to be the true one.
4 Reflections on the fragments
In this section we evaluate the theoretical positions outlined above, emphasising the
common ground and complementarities between them. We go on in the following section to
conclude with a suggested partial integration based on a re-interpreted version of our own
account of presence and some general observations.
4.1 Presence as perceptual illusion
Illusions are a phenomenon easily described within a representational model of perception. Any
time our knowledge doesn’t accurately model its referent we say things are not as they “seem”
to us” (Allsop, 2010:199).
Lombard and Ditton’s (Lombard & Ditton, 1997) well-accepted description of presence is
appealing, but the argument concerning the inadequacy of pretence, above, points to its
limitations. It is essentially a formulation of presence as “being there”. We perceive we are in a
place without being distracted by the mediating technology, which has become transparent.
While we agree that we do need to have the convincing experience that we are “there”, it is a
necessary but not sufficient requirement for presence. This concerns the process that takes
place (in the feeling of being there).
Figure 3 – A rainbow is real to the observer (image in the public domain)
A rainbow is perhaps the best example of a situation where the distinction between the
observed object/event and the observing object/event is not evident (see Figure 3). Manzotti
(2006) explains it as follows: the rainbow is something that cannot be defined in any meaningful
sense independently of an observer and the point of view from which it is seen. In this sense,
the rainbow as a unity, although constituted by a series of physical drops of water in space
reflecting the light in a certain way, cannot be defined without knowing where and how it will
be seen. For instance, it is not possible to fly under a rainbow or to sidestep it. Furthermore, a
rainbow is a private but physical phenomenon. The rainbow is not there to be perceived. The
rainbow is a process that requires particular weather conditions as well as in the observer’s
brain and body. The existence of the rainbow depends not only on the presence of the
necessary physical conditions and the observer, but on a physical continuity between the two. A
If a rainbow is not reallythereto be perceived; is it an illusion? We think not really.
4.2 Pretending, belief and metaphor
We agree with Turner’s view that presence is a feature of experience of both the unmediated
world and some computer-mediated environments. We also follow his line of reasoning when
he suggests that belief plays a role for presence in both. But we see belief not as a pre-requisite,
but as a consequence. The old saying “seeing is believing” can be rephrased as presence is
believingwhen we feel present in a world, it is real for us in that moment. We believe it to be
the case in the here and now of experience, without pretending to. The essence of pretending
seems to us to be that, even when pretending, we know that what we are pretending is
happening is not. It is not an illusion, it is a pretence. When we feel presence, we may know (at
some level) that the experience is not based on the body being where it is felt to be, but we do
not need to pretend to experience it is real.
Tur ne r (2016b) say s (fo r ex ampl e) that when w e play a compu ter game we tempora rily beli eve
that we are killing aliens”. We can accept this use of “belief”- in fact, we agree with it - because
in the moment in a convincing VR, the act is real for us (even though at some more cognitive
level we still know we are not killing aliens). We have the experience that we are (thanks to the
game technology and the media form and content). That is presence; it can be seen as the
experiential illusion of non-mediation, but it is not pretending. We do not pretend we are killing
aliens or to believe we are having the experience of killing them. Because we feel present we
don’t have to. Another example, frequently-cited, is the children’s make-believe or play tea
party. But if we were pretending we would not believe we were at a tea party; if we did believe
we would not be pretending.
We differ from Turner also about the relationship between imagination and metaphor, and how
this relates to presence. In several publications Turner and associates (Turner et al., 2014; 2015;
Tur ner, 2016b) hav e put forw ard the idea that of te n inte rfaces are metaphorical but that we
pretend that they are real. They suggest that, since metaphor clearly involves imagination,
imagination is needed to make sense of interactions and of presence. We make-believe
mediated environments are real and thus imagine their meaning. When we imagine, we think,
we reflect, and from a dual-process theory point of view, this is system 2 type process (Evans,
But, by our view, when we feel truly present in such an environment, we interact in a direct way
say when shooting a simulated enemy with a digital gun. We do not need to make-believe,
pretend or use our imaginations (to make it real). For us, like the physical world usually is, it is
real in the moment. And yet, it also has metaphorical aspects to its meaning as does the
physical world – along the lines of Lakoff and Johnson’s cognitive realism (Johnson, 1987; Lakoff,
1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), but applied to perceptions of the world not only making sense
of more abstract conceptions. In this sense, metaphor does not imply the use of imagination.
Imagination implies the use of metaphor.
Tur ne r’s pos it io n ga in s some support from findings indicating that user characteristics, such as
expressed willingness to experience presence in a VE, affect the level of presence reported (e.g.
Cummings & Bailenson, 2016; Sas & O’Hare, 2003). Sas and O’Hare (2003) explicitly suggest that
presence can arise in response to imagined worlds, but they also conclude that “the more users
think, feel and act in the remote world [……] the greater the sense of presence they will
experience” (page 535). This seems contradictory, since action is not possible in imagination;
indeed a main function of imagination is to test possible actions (including their emotional
effects) without carrying them out (Damasio, 1999).
We suggest that Sas and O'Hare (2003) are referring to the more general concept of absorption:
a characteristic of the individual that involves an openness to experience emotional and
cognitive alterations across a variety of situations (Roche & McConkey, 1990), including both
those that give rise to presence and those that result in a feeling of absence. Both high presence
and intense absence are absorption states, the former based around the current perceptual
flow, the latter around imagined events and situations.
Turner (2016a, b) also argues for presence as make-believe from a system 2 point of view
(Evans, 2003); in other words, as a result of relatively slow and deliberative thinking. But this
contradicts the idea that presence arises in situations where fast and instinctive bodily
responses (from a type-1 cognitive process) are called for, for example in a fast-paced computer
game. As Waterworth and Riva, 2014: 38) describe presence as “the sheer subjective
experience of being in a given environment (the feeling of “being there”) that is the product of
an intuitive experience-based metacognitive judgment.
We understand the world and its possibilities through our bodies, and from the metaphorical
projections of embodied image schemata come to give it meaning and make imagination
possible. Not only does our body structure meaning. In its relation to the spatial world around
it, it also provides an anchor for mental activity. This is how, by interacting with designed
technology, we can carry out meaningful activities via bodily actions. The relationship between
mind, body and world is mutual and circular. Merleau-Ponty (1962) refers to this feedback loop
between the embodied “coper” and the perceptual world as the intentional arc.
4.3 Presence: a successfully simulated semblance?
We agree with Slater that the level of presence experienced in a mediated environment is
heavily dependent on form. We are unlikely to feel much presence in a poorly-rendered VR,
perhaps with unrealistic sound and a perceptible lag between our actions and the
corresponding events in the world. In the physical world, the form seems to be given, and things
behave and respond according to our embodied and largely unconscious expectations. But what
of the sinister watcher we met earlier, the one that suddenly transforms into a harmless tree
stump? By Slater’s view and it seems to us to be correct if we accurately reproduce all
perceptible aspects of the situation, we will have a similar switch from the sinister watcher to
the harmless tree in a VR version of the place. In this case, the form is the same, but it gives rise
to two very different experiences. This supports the idea that presence is not only a matter of
Slater (1992) defined presence as the total response to being in a place. He recommends
triangulating multiple measures to assess the level of presence, such as postural changes,
physiological indicators, and verbal reports (though he is not keen on questionnaires!). But his
view of presence (e.g. Slater, 1993) suggests not that those indicators in themselves measure
presence, but that the level of experienced presence reflects the match between those
indicators from a VR experience and a similar situation in the physical world. If presence is the
total response to a simulation, as compared to the total response to the physical environment
being simulated, then how do we assess presence in virtual environments that convey fictional
realities? If no comparison with reality is involved, how can the “total response” be quantified?
This view suggests that presence is the degree of similarity with physical reality, not a basic state
of consciousness (as suggested by Loomis many years ago; Loomis, 1992).
It seems reasonable that if the form of the physical world can be accurately simulated, we will
have the same experiences in the mediated world as in the physical one. And we will have the
same level of presence. But that does not imply that the level of presence experienced in a
virtual environment is the same as the level of accuracy of the simulation, to how well the
pretence is executed. When we believe that we are being watched and are under threat, we will
feel much more presence than when we do not but the level of pretence is the same.
4.4 Attention to the surrounding world: perceptions and misperceptions
Waterworth et al. (2015: 36 and 48; 2020: 74) define presence as the feeling of being located
in a perceptible external world around the self”; “Varying feelings of presence reflect the extent
to which attention is focused on the external environment”. Presence is an experience of being
in a place, one that allows us to separate the self from the non-self, the internal from the
external, a faculty that helps us to survive. According to Waterworth (2008), when the
technology producing a world is not a focus of our attention, the technology becomes part of
the self, the body. The medium disappears. We do not notice the medium, in the same way that
we do not notice the body during perception. It is there, but “ready-to-hand”, not always
completely transparent, perhaps sometimes semi-transparent. But this is not necessarily the
same as experiencing an illusion of non-mediation.
As can be seen in Figure 4, there are hypothesized to be three layers of presence, that have
emerged over evolutionary history (Riva et al. (2004). Proto presence arises from movement of
the body in an environment and operates primarily through proprioception; core presence is
based in immediate perception; while extended presence relates to the significance of events
for the perceiver. Figure 4 presents a view of how the strength and focus of attention gives rise
to high presence and high absence states.
Figure 4 - Strength and focus of attention in high presence and high absence states (adapted
from Waterworth et al., 2020; with permission)
Normal, everyday levels of presence arise from a split of attentional resources between layers of
differing content, with some attention being directed to the current external situation. Minimal
presence results from a lack of integration of the three layers, such that attention is mostly
directed towards contents of extended consciousness that are unrelated to the present external
environment a psychological state of absence (Waterworth and Waterworth, 2001).
Presence is experienced most strongly when all three layers are integrated and conscious
attention is focused on the same external situation, whether this is physical reality, virtual
reality, or a mixture of the two (Figure 4). Extended presence corresponds to the extent and way
in which top-down processing affects perception of what is happening the outside world.
Maximal presence in a mediated experience arises from an optimal combination of form and
content. The form must provide the means for a convincing perceptual experience, but the
content should be integrated with (and so attract attention to) the form for this to happen
convincingly. Proto presence is determined only by form, core presence by both form and
content, and extended presence only by content. The integration of presence can occur in
either the real or a virtual world. In the case of a virtual world, we need to provide both
appropriate form and meaningful content. Presence in the real world depends only on content
of that perceived world, on what we experience as happening to us in the here and now, since
the form is provided and is always appropriate though sometimes ambiguous, as illustrated by
the “sinister watcher” story.
To i nte gr at e ex te n de d p re se nc e w it h t he o th er l e ve l s, th e ev en t s an d en ti ti e s ex p er i en ce d i n a
virtual environment must have significance for the participant. The internal and external are not
always competitive for attention. The imaginal content (of extended consciousness) may either
enhance or detract from the overall sense of presence. An example of enhancement is a typical
computer game, where game designers strive to ensure that content and form are well
integrated, or in the physical world any situation where we conceive ourselves to be in
danger. Optimal presence arises when the contents of extended consciousness are aligned with
the other layers of the self, and attention is directed to a currently present external world.
Both mediated and unmediated presence are based in perception, and perception is
categorical, though sometimes transitory. A sinister, stooping figure with a black hood, vividly
experienced as watching us through twilight mist, suddenly becomes an old, misshapen tree
stump as we approach it. It does not gradually morph from one to the other. For a while, we
believe in the reality of the sinister watcher; we feel anxious and a chill runs down our spine. A
moment later we believe, and know, that the tree stump is what is real in the material world
(the Necker Cube is an illusion famous for creating alternating perceptions see Figure 1).
5 Conclusions
How can we integrate these four different and sometimes quite divergent theoretical
perspectives on presence? We suggest that by looking at our experience of presence in the
physical world, and at how perceptual illusions work, we can clarify our understanding of
mediated presence. Perhaps more surprisingly, by examining presence experiences in mediated
environments we can expand our understanding of presence experiences in the physical world.
5.1 Presence in reality
Perception (and presence) is partly a matter of hypothesis generation and testing. When we are
fearful we tend to see what our fear predicts as in the case of policemen mistaking a mobile
phone, held by a black suspect on a dark street, for a gun. The constructivist theory of Gregory
(1970) emphasized the importance of top-down processing to perception. While his view seems
exaggerated in light of the clear importance of sensory information to much of perception,
when that information is ambiguous our cognition appears to generate hypotheses about what
might be out there to guide the perceptual process. According to our three-layer model of
presence in the physical world (see Section 4.2, above), this corresponds to the functioning of
extended presence. Top -down processing is sometimes important but it also results in
misperceptions. Gregory (1970) used it convincingly to explain how several perceptual illusions
work, including the ambiguous Necker cube (Necker 1832) shown in Figure 1.
Presence depends on perception, and here we see the importance of imagination, of top-down
processing. In imagination we use metaphorical projection to make sense of what we are
perceiving. But as we have suggested, metaphor does not imply the use of imagination. Rather,
we suggest that imagination implies the use of metaphor, so that perception and presence
often involves the use of metaphor. This leads us to the conclusion that our experience of the
world is metaphorical, in the sense that we project embodied image schemata (Johnson, 1987;
Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) onto what we pick up as sensations to make sense of
them as perceptions.
The top-down approach to perception of Gregory (1970) is often contrasted with the more
bottom-up approach of Gibson (1966, 1972). According to Gibson, perception is largely ‘built-in.
How we perceive things is driven, bottom-up, by innate structures. Gibson sees how we
perceive as having developed over the course of evolution, and this is how we see our capacity
for varying levels of presence experience. We resolve this apparent contradiction by viewing the
innate structures of perception (Gibson, 1972) as another way of viewing the image schemata
of Lakoff and Johnson (Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
How do we distinguish perceptions of the external world (perceptions which may themselves be
largely hypothetical mental predictions) from the purely mental constructions that constitute
imagined situations and events? In other words, how do we separate the internally realised
world from the externally realised world? We see presence as the capacity to make this
distinction and which helps us survive in a dangerous world. This is the purpose of presence
(see Waterworth et al., 2015, for more details).
Attention to the external is important to presence in the physical world, and it is similarly
important for presence in mediated worlds. We also need to believe in what is happening in a
world, whether physical or not. In a mediated world, we need to provide a convincing pretence
of reality for presence. But we need to attend to that pretence, we need a reason to believe
that drives our attention. We are not pretending, except in the sense that, at some level, we
know the virtual reality is a simulation. But in the moment, it is real. In the moment we see the
sinister watcher, we believe he is real. A moment later, we don’t. This is equally true in a VR as
in the physical world. Presence can be viewed as sometimes resulting from a perceptual illusion.
We need to attend for an illusion to work, but only to the things that make it work. Perception
can itself sometimes be illusory.
When we feel present, we believe that what is happening is real, whether in the physical world
or a VR. We do not pretend to believe, we do not make-believe as Turner suggests. Pretending is
a characteristic of absence, not presence. Pretence is what we do when we pay attention to
fictional things, and real things too that we know (believe) are not what we are currently
perceiving in the world around our body. The form of the physical world is given, but
ambiguous. In VR, we can experience fictional worlds as if they are real in fact, as real in the
moment. We believe in them and do not need to pretend that we do. Believing in the real, in-
the-moment existence of something, experienced as being before us, is a characteristic of
perception (and hallucinations; Smith, 2002, 2010
) and of presence.
5.2 Final words
We have focused on the individual’s sense of physical presence, in virtual and in physical
environments, how these can inform each other as viewed through different theoretical lenses,
and how this relates to aspects of what is known about perceptual illusions. We have not
specifically addressed issues related to social presence or the sense of co-presence in physical,
virtual or mixed reality spaces. It is clearly important to look further into these aspects, which
are particularly relevant at the present time - when many people are required or choose to
meet in a variety of mediated communication spaces instead of the physical world. Future work
will be directed towards these issues. The question of which measurements to use, and how to
discuss the presence experience with or without drawing attention to the medium are linked to
the perspectives and definitions of presence, and this is also a topic for further work. In the
remainder of this section we offer a few final words to conclude our theoretical examination of
the world of presence theory, and possibilities for integrating the varied views discussed earlier
in the paper.
In attempting to unify these differing perspectives on presence, we find ourselves agreeing with
the philosopher David Chalmers (2017) who argued that: “…virtual reality is a sort of genuine
reality, virtual objects are real objects, and what goes on in virtual reality is truly real.”. I f w e
Hallucinations are mere representational states with no mind-independent objects, in some ways at the opposite pole from veridical
perception (Sturgeon 2008, 114). Yet an hallucination might be subjectively indiscriminable from a veridical perception, even though it is a bad
case - a mental event only (Smith, 2002; 2010).
experience presence, then the environment we are attending to is real to us in the moment,
whether mediated or unmediated. Or, conversely, if presence in VR is an illusion, then so is
presence in the physical world. Presence in VR involves imagination (though not make-believe),
and so does presence in the physical world.
When we feel highly present, we believe in the perceived world in which we experience
ourselves to be. In that moment it is real to us. To have that experience, we must be attending
to that world. The world may be a simulation, be veridical, be misperceived, or even be an
hallucination. In that moment we do not reflect on this question, and so we do not know which
it isbut we believe that it is.
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