The Importance of Presence
By Caitlin Krause
Meaningful XR collaboration is dependent upon the ability to connect and feel fully immersed in the XR Experience. It’s about the notion and practice of being there, which is a full-body feeling. What actually gives us this feeling of transportation and, along with it, complete “believability” in the interactive digital world that we have become a part of? Presence. The term presence can be associated with a feeling of authenticity and connection, which is internal and has to do with alignment between the internal self and that self’s sense of active agency in XR. So, presence is about alignment of identity and purpose in an environment designed to make us feel “there,” even if we are physically separated from those we are collaborating with. Does this make it something false, because it relies on optical illusion and advanced technology to transfer that sense of connection and presence?
There’s a French term for paintings that appear to emerge from the frame: “trompe l’oeil”– literally, trick the eye. Is XR the most masterful of trickery, designed to fool our brains? Or, is it something that we ride, quite willingly, knowing that it’s a ride? There’s a book by Orhan Pamuk, award-winning author of Snow, called The Naive and Sentimental Novelist. He says that writers can either be naive, following along, immersed in the world of their characters, or they can be sentimental, observing themselves and their characters and their story design through a distanced lens, pulling back from scenes so that they can evaluate them and orchestrate them.
As leaders, storytellers, and designers, we can play both roles when we work with intention to create XR collaboration experiences that are transformational. At times, our presence and designer mindset changes between being willingly sentimental or naive when it comes to XR. A spirit of open curiosity, care, and the wish to listen to and understand users’ needs, backgrounds, and stories can drive our decision-making as we approach facilitating collaborative experiences. And, as Pamuk pointed out, we can adjust our approach to evaluate from all angles without relinquishing the vital sense of wonder and empathy for a user’s view or for the visceral power of connection.
The two approaches are ideal complements. On one hand, we can be sentimental, evaluating the design and using a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to inform the choices we make. We can approach XR by evaluating the tech. We can marvel at the fidelity, the graphics, how the creators pulled something off with 6 degrees of freedom. We think about the code, we think about the engineering, we think about everything that leads to the experience yet has nothing to do with being a part of the experience itself. We think about the ingredients in the chocolate before indulging in simply savoring the flavor.
Or, on the other hand, we can approach our consideration of XR from a naive standpoint. Our body is struck by a visceral sense, and we “ride the ride,” naively lost in the experience. This is a beautiful moment, losing ourselves, losing the analytical perspective of narration and evaluation of the experience. Less analysis, more awe.
XR can do this in a way that strikes at the heart of things. Poetry does this, too. It’s the distilled form, and can reflect the emotional resonance, the motivation underneath the experience. It’s the reason for XR collaboration in the first place. Even as we are invited closer to ourselves in XR, we can lose our self-consciousness, transcending social constructs of identity. We understand and reach each other in different ways. To fully capture this duality of feeling both sentimental and naive, why not jump in and try an XR collaboration experience for yourself? Catch yourself evaluating. And catch yourself letting go.
It might be hard to imagine what this would look and feel like until you gather with a group in an XR environment. In the most basic sense, there is profound opportunity for greater power in XR collaboration because of how humans feel when they are connected in an experience across perceived boundaries. We can lose ourselves in XR, and that’s a rare gift and something psychological that cannot be underestimated for its potential.
XR has a uniquely rich opportunity to reshape mindsets, to inspire opening up to possibility and to rewire connection. What’s happening in the brain in XR is profound, and it has everything to do with our sense of presence.
The Presence Pyramid is a graphic and a concept Steve Dembo and I developed when we were giving a workshop at SXSW in March 2019 about VR and Presence. We titled the session “VR is Visceral: Ready Learner One-to-World,” and it turned into an active campfire debate and discussion about the nature of presence, identity, and connection, in virtual reality and in “real life.” What qualifies an experience as “real”? As we were planning for the workshop, I shared some considerations and observations about the connections among mindfulness, intentional awareness, and deepening levels of presence in experience and interaction.
From active observation, I postulated that the first three questions users feel and express when they enter a new immersive environment, in this specific order, are: “Where am I? Why am I here? Who am I?” Fascinatingly, place and purpose consistently come before questioning identity.
Why is presence so meaningful to XR collaboration? There’s EMOTION involved when we feel deep presence. We CARE. And, we care deeply enough that, in terms of learning science and the way brains work, we encode the experience as meaningful. There is an exchange of meaning that becomes personal and significant, attached to our identity. It has context, and we frame it in our experience so we understand it better. If it can be attached to a story, we have an even better understanding of it.
Meaningful XR collaborative experiences, for people working across different industries, cultures, organizations, and structures, typically transcend the traditional notion and concept of individuality. Just as mindfulness teaches non-judgment and detachment from a singular fixed point of view, XR can encourage users to do the same, to have the same flexibility of mindset and adaptive approach to problem solving, to see from different angles, to understand multiple points of view, and to embody empathy. Users can become more plastic, more able to turn their own fears into curiosity. We are invited into others’ experiences through levels of presence, which is one reason XR has the power to transform thinking.
Approaching topics related to XR collaboration, it’s natural and appropriate to begin by focusing on the technology that makes it all possible. Raising questions about hardware, accessibility, setup procedures, and stakeholders who are spearheading development, research, and applications. This is all necessary, and part of the methodology of approaching new terrain. This is the time to embrace change, defining terms and understanding the systems and the integral parts, details, and context. This is part of beginning to understand XR collaboration, to establish the ground, the landscape for this new language of connection and exchange.
With the landscape defined, presence is also necessary, as it allows users to begin to consider, approach, and define what it means to interact on a human-to-human level that is mediated by XR technologies. Working and exchanging in effective collaboration requires relational trust, and trust in an XR environment comprises trust in the system, trust in the individuals cooperating together, and trust in the “truth” of the experience, whether in reference to level of technical fidelity, emotional resonance, authenticity of relationships, or other consideration. Our ability to feel present and have presence for others is the first step. Then, to consider how these new forms of presence can apply themselves to collaboration that empowers us and others. Using qualities of emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and human-centered design, XR collaboration will amplify the ability to work together in teams and produce outcomes far beyond what is possible in traditional collaborative structures.
While the next step might be to explore avatars, tools, and devices that take presence to new levels in XR collaboration, showing more of the “how,” we also want to address the elements of story design and user experience that elevate collaboration to meaningful exchange.