The concept of presence, the feeling of “being there” and living as an embodied subject in a virtual world, has been investigated extensively in media studies and aesthetics. The progressive blurring of the threshold between the virtual and real world, as well as an increased awareness of the co-constitution between body and technology, puts once more into question the concept of presence and challenges us to develop new critical perspectives and research paradigms.
Presence studies have played a pioneering role by focusing on how remotely operated machinery and virtual reality technologies (Held, Durlach 1992; Ijsselsteijn, Riva 2003; Lombard et al. 2015; Slater 2003; Farocki 2004) can convey a sense of being in a place other than our physical location. In technological mediated experience, the sense of presence is characterised by a perceptual illusion of non-mediation (Lombard, Ditton 1997) and a feeling of transparency (Bolter, Grusin 1999). “Presence” hints both at the notion of “telepresence” (Minsky 1980; Sheridan 1992) that describes the possibility to remotely act in a physical space through machinery information exchanges; and at “presence” as the feeling of inhabiting different forms of virtual environments (Slater, Wilbur 1997; Slater 2018).
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has further emphasised the presence effect of digital media technologies, as social relationships and everyday activities have been guaranteed through the mediation of screens and videoconference platforms. At the same time, in contrast with the meaning so far presented, in recent months, the term “presence” has become increasingly associated with in-person interactions and with the physical presence of spatial proximity that has been precluded as a result of social distancing. These two complementary articulations of presence – as, on the one hand, the sensation of being elsewhere created by digital and virtual reality technology, and, on the other hand, the irreducible proprioceptive experience of our bodies in the flesh – need to be brought together and investigated in their reciprocal connection.
In the narrative of immersive environments, in order to access the virtual world, the body of the experiencer needs to disappear behind a headset and to be isolated from the physical environment. As Jaron Lanier stated in one of his famous definitions of virtual reality (Lanier 2018), those who wander in the virtual space look “preposterously nerdy and dorky” to onlookers. Just like a seer, the experiencer seems to belong to a dimension of clairvoyance, as if entering a sacred space of divination (Dalmasso 2019), consecrated by the very gesture of tracing the grid of so-called guardian space (Grespi 2021). The experiencer’s body opens up a dimension of overlapping and in between. Although elsewhere, this body is present more than ever as it constantly enables the constitution of the virtual space through multisensory stimulation. However, the same body is also the potential source of excess and emersive effects, as the intrusion of physical space brings them back to the opacity of the interface and the hypermediation of virtual reality media.
The complex sense of presence elicited in virtual environments relies upon the ability of devices to recognise and react to the user’s gestures and spatial location (Calleja 2011). The constitution of the virtual image is the product of a negotiation between the computer-generated environment and the movement of the experiencer’s body and embodied gaze. How do motion tracking and the biometrics interface both enhance and affect our sense of presence? How does this modify the way we understand presence?
As we address the world in the flesh, “presence”, in Dufrenne’s phenomenology (Dufrenne 1953), is what binds us to reality. It represents the nascent state of sensible experience and the condition of possibility of knowledge. The subject as a lived body is capable of grasping the original and raw level of the experience through a “bodily understanding.” Presence is, therefore, the primordial horizon of perceptions, which, as Merleau-Ponty would say, in principle can never be thematized (Merleau-Ponty 1945).
As a result, the presence effect arises critically in the fold between the physical and the digital or virtual space, especially challenged in immersive media experiences. As the sense of displacement is a constitutive element of the very notion of the virtual (Lévy 1995), immersive media re-establish new ways of territorialisation which entail, consequently, renewed forms of embodiment. To better understand the different gradients of presence in immersive environments at issue here, it is necessary to delve into the relationship between the experiencer and the virtual space and, thus, to outline a phenomenology of virtual space (Schubert 2009; Champions 2019).
Virtual reality compels the experiencer to become embodied within the environmental image, often through full or partial avatarization, whether as a figure – possibly manipulated and assembled by the users themselves – which bears similarities with the human body, a non-human avatar, or a “disembodied” gaze. The very term “avatar,” derived from the Sanskrit “avatāra” (“descent”), means, in Hinduism, the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form, raising the theological background that permeates the entire virtual reality scenario.
Moreover, under certain conditions based on plausible similarity to the user’s bodily features and on system responsiveness, avatarisation can not only elicit a strong sense of presence but even induce a body ownership effect (Spanlang et al. 2014), namely the feeling of proprioceptive congruence between one’s own and the virtual body – a technologically enhanced and extended version of the well-known “rubber hand illusion” (Botvinick and Cohen 1998).
How does the experience of embodying an avatar elicit a sense of presence in the user? What kind of relationship can we establish between the virtual body and the physical presence of the user’s body in the flesh? How can the fact of inhabiting a virtual body impact the processes of self-representation and the constitution of biocultural identity?
If the virtual reality experience could reach such heights as to induce a body ownership effect, these different modes of presence call for a careful analysis of the possible meanings of quasi-embodying another cultural, gender, or racial identity (Tacikowski et al. 2020; Freeman, Maloney 2021). Being present in a virtual world could determine a potential space of identity and bodily experimentation, but, at the same time, it is also double-edged, since it could end up reproducing normative grids and enhancing hegemonic gazes.
This seminar aims to investigate the medium of virtual reality and the experience of immersive media through the intertwining of the different meanings of presence outlined above, in order to bring to light the multiple aesthetic, political, and social perspectives they entail, as well as to detect their criticalities and unravel their expressive potential.
Possible covered topics:
modes of presence in virtual environments and immersive media
embodiment and presence effect in VR, AR, and XR
philosophical and anthropological theories of the presentification of the image
phenomenology of virtual space
media-archaeological investigations of presence effect
opacity, gaps and emersive effects of virtual-reality experience
the role of the presence effect in the constitution of biocultural identities
social virtual reality and modifications of behavioural settings (Proteus Effect)
the creation of VR experience, performances and installations
VR pornography, immersive journalism, pro-social and humanitarian VR