Mat Janson Blanchet's academic works

Introduction for the court trial on the concept of presence

Posted on October 25, 2018

Interaction Models

This week, our interaction models class was conducted in a different way:

[The class will be in the form of] a court trial to analyse the controversy around the notion of PRESENCE in AMVR research and development and hence determine whether we may consider it a valid concept or not.

My responsibility was to introduce the case of the prosecution against presence in virtual reality. Below is speech I gave:

There is an old saying in French: “Les absents ont toujours tort,” which can be translated to “the absent are always in the wrong.” However, it does not entail the corollary, and therefore we cannot say that “the present are always right.”

This afternoon, our colleagues will attempt to wow you with technical feats and impressive outliers in order to sell you that presence is the be-all/end-all of virtual reality. However, what proof could they provide? Research and experiments that have been conducted in this field rely on measurements of elements that are completely subjective at best, or impossible to quantify at worse.

That is not to say we deny the existence of presence, it is after all, a natural component of our daily lives and social interactions. We simply do not believe the snake oil that virtual reality is trying to sell us, that it is capable to accurately recreate a sense of presence.

Talking about snake oil: in his text Cinema of Attractions, the american art historian Tom Gunning exposed how cinema originally had more in common with the attractions of the fairground than the theater.

It’s easy to imagine: fairground folk vying for the attention of onlookers, inviting them to see their new contraption. The onlookers come into the tent, more curious about the technology in display than the actual narrative they are witnessing. They are looking for a spectacle, they are in this open mindset, and are ready to let go of some of their common sense to live new experiences.

They are ready to suspend their disbelief.

For the last twenty-some years, producers and designers of virtual experiences have tried to sell us that VR is realistic enough to transport you into and give you a sense of presence in virtual worlds.

And we follow along, we jump to the occasion to try out their new gizmos, and dream of electric sheep.

We willfully choose to suspend our disbelief.

With directed experiences that negate the body and can cause displacement, with research and experiments that induce certain responses and reactions, and with people moderating their own level of presence during any event of their lives, it’s hard to think that presence is a simple goal to attain, if it must be attained at all.

Today, we will explore some of these experiments where subjective and unclear data is used as a crutch. We will also discover how it may be better to reclaim our agency over the virtual worlds created for us, the end-users, in order to reclaim our presence.

In fact, we will explore why—if presence is increased by reducing human-computer interaction—is it necessary to mediate the experience with a technology that seeks to hide itself from the equation.

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