Creating a better sense of being there virtually

Eindhoven 05 July 2006How real can virtual reality get? Researchers set out to identify ways of measuring presence - or the illusion of "being there" created by mediated environments. Remember those reports of early virtual reality (VR) programmes making people sick? They were an obvious indication of the difficulty of conjuring "presence", that sense of "being there", located in an actual place, although in a simulated environment. Happily, technology has improved since those early experiences, but with the progress has come increased difficulty in assessing just how successful (or not) VR environments are in creating the all-important illusion of reality.


The OMNIPRES project was established to support presence measuring and research in the IST Future and Emerging Technologies' (FET) Presence initiative, explained Wijnand IJsselsteijn, project co-ordinator of a team from Eindhoven Technical University and Goldsmith's College, University of London. "In presence engineering we're trying to broaden the human-machine bandwidth", he stated. "Sitting behind the screen is a poor environment, with no sensory feedback. Of course, for number-crunching and data-processing it hardly matters, but there are some therapeutic areas, for example treating phobias, especially fear of flying, that use VR - for these, the illusion of reality is paramount. We need to be able to say how real VR has to be to work therapeutically, which is the measuring component, but also how to improve the sense of reality, which is the research component."

As Wijnand IJsselsteijn pointed out, presence research is "a complex new discipline, and one that is actually multi-disciplinary, uniting computer science, display technology and psychology". Presence engineering uses scientific knowledge of the senses to broaden our experience of technology. Moreover, he continued, "We need to invest in understanding how the brain processes information in time and space, in order to develop systems that take our capacities and limits into account. In this regard, new brain science is really important, and so is the study of social interaction - after all, VR can be human-machine, but it can also be mediated human-to-human interaction."

A large part of OMNIPRES' work involved the creation of a "compendium of presence measures", which is now available on-line. "These tend to fall into two basic types", explained Wijnand IJsselsteijn. "Self-measurement, usually in the form of a questionnaire, is one type. We found about 30 of these. They're mostly quite general, though some are specifically designed for evaluating sense of place, others for social sense - in other words the presence of an entity."

The second basic type offers more scope for research: "This type includes objective co-operative methods - going as far as neural correlates. Typically, methods of this type are looking for response similarities - testing whether people respond - physically, emotionally, or psychologically - to VR as they do to real life. It's very much the current trend in presence research to pay more attention to brain processes, looking for neural signatures", he stated.

So which measurement method is best? "One of our key findings is that among the different measurement systems there is no gold standard", stated Wijnand IJsselsteijn. "Measurement needs to be tailored according to the project."

Although OMNIPRES officially ended last September, the project group is still working on its most lasting production: a handbook to be published later this year. The handbook condenses the knowledge gathered at the project's co-organised workshops and conferences, and during its three-year scan of the fast-changing field.

"The handbook will have lasting value", stated Wijnand IJsselsteijn. "I expect it to be used for some years. OMNIPRES was like a network of excellence that tried to integrate different measurements and theoretical approaches in a broad look across the field. It was analytic, but also synthetic. We have created a very valuable overview, and we have certainly made the issues a lot more visible."

With their handbook due out the later this year, the same partners are turning their attention to social presence: they are about to embark on a new FET project called PASION. "Our motto is, make the implicit explicit", stated Wijnand IJsselsteijn. "There's still a lot we can learn about creating presence."

For more information you can contact Dr. Wijnand IJsselsteijn, Human-Technology Interaction Group, Department of Technology Management, Eindhoven University of Technology, IPO 1.37, P.O.Box 513, NL-5600 MB Eindhoven, The Netherlands, Tel: +31-40-2474455, or visit the OMNIPRES project Web site.

This article has been reprinted from the IST Results Web site.

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