The construct of presence has deep ties to human perception; we want users to subjectively comprehend and believe in the environment around them. The crux of this plays into the psychological responses of our users in given scenarios, which can be incredibly varied. Two major concepts centering around perception is that of environmental understanding and personal expectations.
Perception as a Form of Environmental Understanding
Presence is founded upon the values of suspension of disbelief in an illusion. This place illusion entirely hinges upon a user’s ability to understand the repercussions of their environment. However, VR/AR does not have to retain the same laws of physics as the real world. Because of this, users in VR/AR often gravitate to immediate constructs of testing world physics. Crashing into the environment and even throwing or hitting objects is their way of testing the digital world to better understand the relational value of “them + object + environment = ?”.
This want to understand action, reaction, and consequences is called causality (Michotte, A. 1963). In VR/AR, the goal of the environment is to give users agency as arbiters of the system by validating any form interaction: positive (something we want users to do), negative (something we don’t want users to do), or neutral (something that does not cause benefit or detriment). This allows our users to explore the rules of engagement within their environment and feel acknowledged. Obviously, we want to reward positive interactions in our player’s behavior through Reinforcement Learning Loops whenever a user (agent) takes an action on the environment.
Giving agency to our users and encouraging them to learn about the causality of the environment is incredibly beneficial especially when we can change fundamental concepts like gravity. However, in crafting digital environments we want to keep a level of consistency in this action, reaction, consequence sequence in what is referred to as the fidelity contract (Hunter 2016).
The fidelity contract is a set of rules that are set by object/environmental affordances presented to our users. Some interactions in VR/AR conserve the expectations learned through the real world, and some subvert them. Messing around with player expectations is good, but the brain anticipates consistency. When this fidelity contract is broken, the user’s immersive state too is often broken. Maintaining our user’s plausibility that virtual spaces and content actually exist means maintaining a level of consistency in world building.
Flying around the globe isn't realistic - but the controls are consistent!
There are ther illusions of presence that can be seen in VR/AR interactions such as the illusion of physical interaction and the illusion of social communication. The illusion of social communication we can integrate systems that emulate body movement such as arm and head postion, and include the presence of the individual's voice or a voiceover. To maintain the illusion of physical interaction we must consider the ever-important interplay of audio, visual, and haptic information being provided by the system.
There are some illusions of presence that are seen more in VR experiences that are important to consider as well. There is the illusion of being in a stable place, the illusion of self embodiment (see previous section). Both of these play upon the interaction of the individual in space. For the illusion of a stable place, we can integrate systems that confirm (not necessarily replicate) the objects presented in 3D space are representative within that of real-world objects in 3D space.
Perception as a Form of Personal Expectations
Not only do we want to provide users with a place illusion but we want to convey a plausibility illusion as well. Plausibility illusion can be defined as, “the extent to which the system can produce events that directly relate to the participant, the overall credibility of the scenario being depicted in comparison with expectations” (Slater, 2009). In more concise terms, the plausibility of the events happening in these digital worlds is tied to individual expectations that a person might have.
These player expectations are based on physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioral, relational, and situational behaviors that they exhibit throughout their lifetime. These behaviors could manifest in genetic tendencies like left-handness or right-handedness, however they could also manifest due to chronological events in our lifetime or familial, cultural, or societal values that have been taught as expectations in order for us to fit into our surroundings. People have personal expectations related to space as well. An example below [Fig 7] showcases how we as people categorize individual, interpersonal, social, and public spaces. Because different cultures might have varying degrees of space, these are all things we need to consider when crafting engaging content.
Learned traits are much trickier to understand or anticipate, but an important construct to remember. Individuals have physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioral, relational, and situational behaviors that they exhibit throughout their lifetime. However these behaviors don’t just manifest because of genetic tendency, they also manifest because we have learned them as a part of our social groups. These behaviors could be because of familial, cultural, or societal values that have been taught as expectations in order to fit in.