Presence in VR

AUTHOR: TOM BERZINS

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Nothing like giving a good pat to a VR robot dog! (Image from: theLab)

Witnessing people lose their minds in virtual reality never gets old. It brings me great joy when someone tries VR for the very first time, because their reaction is always that of genuine astonishment. They’ve underestimated just how immersive VR has become in recent years, and in those first few moments of experiencing a rich virtual environment, they find themselves filled with amazement. In the industry, this phenomenon is known as presence. It happens when you momentarily forget that you are in the real world; when the subjective immersion is so great that you have become temporarily connected to the virtual world. Your brain has been tricked by the illusion.

This appeal of presence is the defining feature of modern virtual reality and is a monumental step forward from even the most immersive screen-based games. Sure, anyone can get lost in a good video game, but when you’re in VR and you have a real physical response to a virtual event, that’s something else! It’s also the reason why HTC Vive have broken every single sales target they have set for themselves. It’s that good.

What’s interesting about presence is that it still works in virtual environments that don't accurately reflect the real-world. For example, the HTV Vive isn’t near a retina display, and most games are not ultra-realistic - yet you can always induce presence. If a building looks enough like a building, you brain tends to accept it. Yet this is not a failing of the brain, but a triumph of technology. According to Researchers at Valve, the following are needed to establish presence.

• A wide field of view

• High HMD resolution

• A high refresh rate

• Precise tracking – within millimetre accuracy

• Low latency (<20 ms)

Duck, weave, dodge, you're in that world. (Image from: theLab)

By themselves, all these technologies are impressive feats of human ingenuity; but when they converge (perhaps an even more impressive feat) it creates something truly ground-breaking.

The amazing thing is it doesn't matter how sceptical you are. You can watch player after player jump off a virtual building and tell yourself you know what’s coming. But when you’re looking down at the ground from 20 stories up, rationality counts for nothing; your brain automatically increases your heart rate, causes your knees to lock up and your palms to get sweaty. You find yourself actively having to suppress your core instincts - not to jump off tall buildings.

In an actual study to test the practicality of VR as exposure therapy to acrophobia - fear of heights - the researchers found that presence was a key component for the successful therapy. This highlights the usefulness of presence in VR, and it is conceivable that many other fears and phobias may be overcome with similar interventions. VR has a very bright future, and although the main applications are currently centred around entertainment and gaming, let us not lose sight of the good that this technology can do for all of humanity.

   The presence is real..
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