Beyond Just Seeing: Redefining Presence in VR

Published 07/08/2024
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Figure 4. The Amphibian frame. Bottom-left: The underwater VR environment. Top-right: Custom gloves with IMus and flex sensors for tracking the user’s hands. Bottom-right: Inflatable textured ball for just-in-time haptic feedback.The vision of virtual reality has been the recreation of reality. However, in pursuing this vision, researchers and developers have largely prioritized visual fidelity over integrating other sensory modalities. Favoring a visual perception and, more recently, combining it with audio has led to the design of virtual worlds that look strikingly real but still do not feel like authentic reality.

A new approach documented in the research paper, “Enhancing the Sense of Presence in Virtual Reality,” proposes a framework that aims to blur the boundaries between the virtual and physical realms. The authors, Rahul C. Basole, Accenture Data and AI, Atlanta, GA, USA, and Timothy Major, Accenture Data and AI, Overland Park, KS, USA, suggest that a higher sense of presence and embodied immersion can be had by blending extrinsic elements from the user’s real-world context with the interesting hardware specifications, software applications, and interactive virtual content.

Learn more about their work and download the published article below.


The Role of Embodied Action in Perception

Our understanding of the world isn’t simply what we see. It’s an interaction between our minds, bodies, and the environment we inhabit. This concept is captured by embodied cognition theory, which argues that cognition arises from the continuous interaction among these three elements. Pioneering psychologist James J. Gibson, known for his theory of ecological perception, emphasizes this very notion. He argued that perception isn’t passive observation but an active process driven by our movements and the possibilities for action an environment affords us.

Reliance solely on vision for VR experiences creates a limited experience. As philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty highlights, “We are not simply bodies endowed with senses, but rather sensing bodies.” We don’t just see a cup; we reach out, grasp it, and feel its weight and texture. This multi-sensory integration is crucial for a rich sense of presence in the real world. Similarly, VR experiences that incorporate user actions in multiple sentences hold the key to unlocking a truly immersive virtual reality.


Overview of the 4D Framework

The 4D framework proposes a revolutionary approach to VR by considering both the user’s physical environment (extrinsic elements) and the VR system itself (intrinsic elements). This creates a richer and more immersive experience by leveraging the user’s existing context.

One exciting application focuses on space. Imagine a VR experience where your virtual environment seamlessly reflects your physical surroundings. The framework can automatically transform a 3D scan of your room into a corresponding VR space, allowing you to walk naturally within the virtual world. This eliminates the need for complex redirection techniques and opens doors for creating PR experiences tailored to your physical space.

The framework also emphasizes the importance of multi-sensory integration (modality). The Amphibian project exemplifies this by creating a VR scuba diving experience that incorporates not just visuals and sound but also touch, temperature changes, and even subtle water resistance sensations.

Social interaction in VR is another exciting frontier. The 4D framework explores this through projects like “Your Place and Mine,” which allows users with full-body tracked avatars to interact and move around in a shared virtual space. The system facilitates activities like taking a virtual dance class together, fostering a high degree of co-presence and social connection despite physical distance.

Beyond these examples, the framework even considers incorporating physiological data (user state). BreathVR explores this concept by using breathing patterns as an input technique. By suddenly adjusting the VR experience based on your breathing, BreathVR aims to create a deeper level of connection and immersion within the virtual world.


Impact and Future Directions

The 4D framework has already started to influence the VR landscape. Startups are exploring its potential to create more engaging and realistic VR experiences, but challenges remain. Enabling natural locomotion within virtual spaces and mitigating cybersickness are ongoing areas of research. Fostering a true sense of social presence also remains a hurdle.

The 4D framework aligns with the vision of the metaverse: a persistent, interconnected network of virtual worlds. By leveraging the user’s environment and actions, the framework offers a blueprint for creating immersive and interactive experiences within the metaverse.


Download the full paper, “Enhancing the Sense of Presence in Virtual Reality,” to explore the 4D framework and its potential applications further.

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