‘Presence’ in MUVEs

VR and the user experience: ‘being there’

Although most of the notes hereunder should be understood to be generic observations on the issue of ‘presence’ in multi-user virtual environments, the benchmark and focus is Second Life.

A good place to start is by considering some ‘wishful thinking’ quotes from the very early days of VR:

By making data and programs accessible in the form of three-dimensional (3-D) worlds that are directly present to the senses and to navigation we propose—for the first time—to make the computer adapt to the human. Homo sapiens are inherently three-dimensional creatures: from the moment we first lie on our backs in our cribs we learn to reach and grasp and manipulate objects in a 3-D space. From the moment we first begin to crawl and later walk we learn to navigate and locate things in a vast 3-D space. These interactions are so deeply wired in our brains that we often cannot imagine the world any other way.
[Alan Wexelblat (ed.), Virtual Reality: Applications and explorations. Boston: Academic Press. 1993, p.xiv.]

This seems to me a crucial observation, prompting two remarks. In the first place, in the real world we ARE our bodies (or, in the words of Susan and Matthew Blakeslee, “the body has a mind of its own”)–it is our bodies rather than (disembodied) minds that navigate about a three-dimensional physical world, and our bodies that through posture and gesture communicate non-verbal meanings to others. Does this entail that information space should optimally also assume properties of three-dimensional space? I have no simple answer to that question

… people seem to feel more at home in a hyperspace when it has some of the properties of the real space they are used to
[Tim Berners-Lee, Forward to M. Pesce, VRML: Browsing and Building Cyberspace. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing, 1995]

One intuitively feels this statement by the creator of the World Wide Web to be self-evidently true. But what exactly are the properties of “real space” that can and should be modeled in some manner in virtual space that may help people “to feel more at home”? The second half of this page lists a number of features; but clearly digital space by its very nature can never feel–in a corporeal sense–like real space. The following quote points towards the start of an answer:

The truly oldest form of VR is located in a relatively small area stretching roughly between your left ear and your right ear.
[Pat Cadogan, Forward to A. Wexelblat (ed.), Virtual Reality: Applications and explorations. Boston: Academic Press. 1993.]

Howard Rheingold, in his 1991 book, Virtual Reality, interestingly suggests that the first technology-driven instance of VR was to be found in the cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, and similar palaeolithic sites elsewhere. Referring to John Pfeiffer’s The Creative Explosion (1982), he notes that “From the placement of the paintings, the three-dimensional illusions, and external evidence of other human activities during the same period, Pfeiffer assembled evidence for his hypothesis that the purpose of these underground light shows was to cause a specific state of consciousness.” Thus my final two quotes:

An interactive computer system is a series of presentations intended to affect the mind in a certain way, just like a movie …
… The reality of a movie includes how the scenery was painted and where the actors were repositioned between shots, but who cares? The virtuality of the movie is what seems to be in it. The reality of an interactive system includes its data structure and what language it’s programmed in—but again, who cares? The important concern is, what does it seem to be?
A “virtuality”, then, is a structure of seeming—the conceptual feel of what is created. What conceptual environment are you in? It is this environment, and its response qualities and feel, that matter—not the irrelevant “reality” of implementation details. And to create this seeming, as an integrated whole, is the true task of designing and implementing the virtuality.
[Ted Nelson, Literary Machines]

VR is not defined by a particular technology, but rather by user experience.
[Peter Koziura, Virtual Reality Technology]

Defining a sense of ‘presence’

Presence as graphical realism

  1. fast rendering of scenes and objects: sense of immersion in a MUVE is ensured earlier by fast rendering time; the longer the time taken to render scenes, the less likely that one will have an authentic sense of ‘place’
  2. high-quality rendering of scenes and objects: high resolution graphics
  3. adjusts / retains perspective
  4. depth of vision: remote landscape and objects should be visible in a MUVE to the depth of vision that one is accustomed to in real life (in Second Life depth of vision can, in the Preferences, be set to an upper limit of 512 metres as “draw distance”.)
  5. pseudo-naturalism / representational fidelity: photographic textures, for example

Presence as physical and environmental realism

Physical properties and behaviours in the virtual world should mirror those of the real world

  1. movement and movabililty of objects: objects that, in the real world, would be movable or should move will be movable in the virtual environment. How the object might be moved in the virtual world might in many cases depend on the nature of the object; for example, a guitar might be a ‘wearable’ (i.e., as an attachment to the avatar) whereas a supermarket trolley might be a pushable (using a pose ball)
  2. manipulation and behaviour of objects: avatars should be able to engage with virtual objects in ways comparable to how in real life we would engage with objects. For example, if the object is a door, then an avatar should be able to open and close the door; if the object is a car, then the avatar should be able to drive the car.
  3. fast response of objects and environment to avatar actions: there should be a short response time to avatar actions on objects
  4. persistence of location of objects: when moved, they will still be in that location when the user next logs in. For example, if an avatar drives a car from point A to point B, then when the user re-logs the car should still be at point B.
  5. the corollary of the above is that one’s avatar, when the user relogs, should appear at the same location (s)he was in at the moment of quitting rather than returned to some ‘start’ or ‘home’ location
  6. shared experience: if an object is moved, or seen to be moved, by avatar A then it should similarly and simultaneously be seen by avatars B, C, D, … to have moved
  7. environmental presence: in general, the extent to which the environment itself acknowledges and reacts to the person in the MUVE (Heeter, 1992)

Physics of the virtual world captures that of the real world

  1. physical behaviour of objects: fire, waves, etc, should as far as possible display the physical behaviours of real-world equivalents. In Second Life, for example, flames and waves look much like real flames and waves; though do not behave like either on contact–a flame will not ignite objects in which it is on contact.
  2. physical behaviour of environment (water, clouds, sun, shadows, etc)
  3. ‘flexiprims’ (hair, clothing, curtains, trees, flags, etc)

Environment (according to Zeltzer, 1992) should aspire towards a condition of ‘autonomy’–viewed as the extent to which the virtual environment is more than just passive geometry. Among the features one might expect are:

  1. ambient light
  2. ambient sound

and, beyond that, a sense of presence may be explained in terms of the ‘ecological view’ (Schuemie et al, 2001):

  • The environment offers situated affordances. The term affordance was coined by Gibson (1979) and is meant to describe the possibilities or opportunities that the environment (i.e., surroundings) of an animal offers or affords the animal. For example, for a human, the ground affords walking, a chasm affords falling and hurting, an apple might afford eating, and a tiger affords being eaten. A particular affordance is dependent on both environment and animal. The surface of water in a ditch does not afford support or walking for humans, but it does for water bugs.
  • Perception-action coupling. An organism perceives its environment in terms of its affordances, making perception dependent on possible action.
  • Tools become “ready-to-hand”. According to Heidegger (1962) using a tool (in the case of VR and specifically of MUVEs, the mediating technologies) precludes the user from possessing a stable representation of the tool. The user is no longer aware of the tool itself but only of the usefulness the tool has in whatever task is performed. (See also Peripersonal Space, below.)

Presence as identification with ‘second self’

Avatar-environment geometry

  1. first-person perspective: although the ‘camera’ is set a couple of metres behind and above the avatar in Second Life, the sense of a first-person perspective is maintained; the user is less an observer than a participant. First-person perspective is supported in most MUVEs (Second Life, There, Active Worlds, Worlds Inc, etc; alternative perspectives are also supported in most MUVEs)

Peripersonal space

When you drive a car your peripersonal space expands to include it, from fender to fender, from door to door, and from tire to roof. … As you enter a parking garage with a low ceiling you can ‘feel’ the nearness of your car’s roof to the height barrier as if it were your own scalp. This is why you instinctively duck when you pass under the barrier. (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p.4)


  1. choice and customisability of avatar: initial free choice at sign-up; ability to subsequently substitute shape and skin. (Note also, for Second Life, the ability to create a photorealistic avatar: http://cyberextruder.com/avatars). To consider:
    • in many MUVEs–and significantly in Second Life–one is able to choose a non-human avatar (for example, robot or animal), a semi-human avatar (e.g. a ‘furrie’)
  2. customisability of core (i.e. bodily) appearance: height, musculature, skin colour, hair colour, hair length, hair style, facial features, etc
  3. choices of, and ability to change, clothing and accessories just as one can in real life

Richness, graphical realism, appropriateness, and immediacy of responsiveness by avatars to environment

  1. short response time / fast response of objects and environment to avatar actions
  2. appropriate response of avatars to environment or event. For example (and these are both true of Second Life), missing a step should lead to the avatar stumbling, and avatar position after falling should be dependent on hight fallen (in Second Life, avatars falling from a great height will fall spread-eagled flat on their faces, while from a short height will land on their feet and momentarily stagger to regain balance).

Affective engagement: “one of the most important consequences of presence is that a virtual experience can evoke the same reactions and emotions as a real experience” (Schuemie et al, 2001, p.187)

  1. It’s a long way down … virtual vertigo at 700m

    involvement: attention is focused on one’s activities in-world rather than on the technological paraphernalia (mouse, keyboard, screen) that mediate and control the in-world experience

  2. transfer of real-life feelings, phobias, emotions, proprioception. “Hodges et al (1994), in a between-subject experiment with 10 subjects on a wait-list and 10 subjects being treated for fear of heights in VR, showed that the subjects, who were all acrophobic, did show increased subjectively reported anxiety when confronted with height in the VE. They further showed that treatment in VR reduces acrophobia when compared to the waiting list” (Schuemie, 2001, p.187-8). “Walking a tightrope over a chasm in virtual reality can be a terrifying ordeal even if the walker knows it’s virtual rather than physical” (Blascovich & Bailenson, 2011, p.1).  My personal experience of ‘virtual vertigo’, when observing my avatar to be standing at the edge of a 700m drop (see screenshot, right), confirms this.

Social construction of ‘second self’

  1. the Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome: “Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!” Projection of user’s sense of self into avatar; identification between user’s and avatar’s “person-ness”.
  2. the Presentation of Self in Everyday (Second) Life (pace Erving Goffman): a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night–“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”–has interestingly and tellingly found its way into a number of SL avatar profiles. Is my avatar me? how do we present ourselves to others in MUVEs? how do we engage with others in MUVEs?

Presence as social realism


  1. virtual presence of others: feeling that you are in the presence of others; very generally, the perception that there are autonomous agents present with you in virtual space, whether or not they represent other humans (they could be Eliza-like bots), and whether or not you choose to interact with them.
  2. social presence of others: feeling that other persons are ‘really’ present via the mediacy of their avatars: specifically, the perception that you are in the presence of, and sharing a common space with, social actors who, like yourself, also have real-world personae such that avatars can interact with much of the uncontrived naturalness of real-world social beings. Lombard & Ditton (2000) identify the very similar concept of ‘parasocial interaction’: “crossing the border between the actual physical environment and the mediated environment in order to interact with people in real time”.
  3. reciprocal recognition: feeling that you are yourself recognised by others as present via your avatar, its (your) behaviours, and its (your) talk
  4. the corollary of [2]: feeling that, beyond simple recognition of presence, you are acknowledged by others as a social presence, i.e. a ‘real’ person
  5. ‘parasocial relationships’: “Items from the standardized measure of parasocial phenomena concerning about feelings of friendship, etc. toward people in the mediated environment” (Lombard & Ditton, 2000, p.9). More than mere acknowledgement of, and by, others as social presences, participants may develop and experience affective or emotive responses towards each other. I leave open and unanswered for the present the interesting psychological question of whether the affective element of a social encounter is felt by the real-world participant or, quasi-‘schizophrenically’, by the avatar as well or alone.

Support for communication

  1. Verbal communication
    • local text chat, IM. Consider whether the limitations and constraints of text chat, together with the need for immediate response in order to maintain the flow of conversation, result in the (accidental) construction and presentation to others of a ‘self’ that differs from your real-world self
    • voice. Some MUVEs support voice communication
  2. Non-verbal communication
    • kinesics (intermittent change of standing posture, eye movement, sitting positions)
    • audio gestures (text or menu-driven sound clips)


Blakeslee, S. & Blakeslee, M. (2007). The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own. New York: Random House. ISBN: 0812975278. [Amazon]

Blascovich, J. & Bailenson, J.  (2011).  Infinite Reality.  New York: HarperCollins.

Gibson, J. (1979). The Ecological Approac to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 0898599598. [Amazon]

Heeter, C. (1992). ‘Being There: The subjective experience of presence’, Presence, 1, pp.262-271

Lombard, M. & Ditton, T. (2000). ‘Measuring presence: A literature-based approach to the development of a standardized paper-and-pencil instrument’. Paper presented at the Presence 2000 Workshop, 27-28 Match 2000, Delft. [PDF]

Rheingold, H. (1991). Virtual Reality. London: Martin Secker and Warburg. ISBN: 0671693638. [Amazon]

Schuemie, M.J., van der Straaten, P., Krijn, M., & van der Mast, C.A.P.G. (2001). ‘Research on Presence in Virtual Reality: A Survey’, CyberPsychology and Behaviour, 4(2), pp.183-201

Zeltzer, D. (1992). ‘Autonomy, interactiohn, and presence’, Presence, 1, pp.127-213


Mel Slater’s Presence Blog
» http://www.presence-thoughts.blogspot.com

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