IBC2017: The power of presence will prove to be vital in developing more engaging media, especially in VR.

Generating a sense of presence is key to making better, more engaging media, especially in VR applications, according to Professor Lombard.


VR immersion at IBC2017

Presence authority Matthew Lombard, Associate Professor, Media Studies & Production, Temple University said “companies and people often talk about presence, but use different phrases to capture it; phrases like ‘immersive’, or ‘being there’, are shorthand for presence.”

Lombard said: “Presence can help with two big challenges: designing and measuring audience and user engagement.

“There is great unrealised potential for psychological study of media to influence and improve the design and marketing of technology. There is a gap between the academics and the industry here.”

”Technology is becoming more natural and intuitive”

The professor began his session titled ‘Using the Psychology of Presence to Engage Users of Media Technologies’ by illustrating the arc of media delivery technology development, from the 70s to present day, and pointing out the main themes of ease of use, as well as pervasiveness.

“Technology is becoming more natural, intuitive, comfortable, easy, simple, automatic – real”, he told the audience, before enumerating the ways in which technology generates a sense of presence, and why it is important.

We need to go beyond simple use statistics, such as TV ratings, or clicks, he said: “Presence is associated with positive outcomes of engagement.

“All the studies show that presence experiences are common, last from 1 minute to 6 hours, with a median of 20 minutes, and usually occur late in the day. Relaxation increases presence, and most presence is strong and enjoyable.”

He then listed a ‘crib sheet’ of factors that increase and intensify presence, making content more effective and valuable.

These factors include making images big, with a wide field of view, increasing image resolution, using subjective camera shots, setting audio to comfortable-to-high volumes (essentially audio that is too quiet breaks presence).

Additionally, adding stimulation of more senses, making it interactive, removing the keyboard – which is a barrier to presence, and in the same vein reduces lags and glitches – makes it seem live.

“Hide the technology, and most importantly don’t let it screw up!” said Lombard. “This must be as seamless as possible, removing as many glitches as possible. This factor is why professional telepresence rooms just have a table in them; the technology is hidden away.”

He continued to detail several other key attributes, such as using gradual transitions to avoid jarring changes, and avoiding media conventions that can break presence.

“Make the experience plausible, and make tasks moderately challenging to raise engagement, but not so hard as to dissuade,” he told delegates.

Matthew lombard

Matthew Lombard

“Use social cues to avoid uncanny valley (where too realistic becomes unnerving), and finally create and encourage a relaxed environment.

“I like to think of presence as a delicate spell that is cast. Easily broken and lost – it can be regained, but not easily. Any negative cue that contradicts the illusion will break presence, and that can vary between the person and the context – there’s a breaking point for every experience.”

In closing he briefly addressed the topic of audio, and specifically binaural sound: “The sense of presence in music is a fascinating study, and especially the question around how you can use presence as a guide to designing an effective recording.”

One such example suggested by an audience member could be Turning Forest by the BBC, which allies relatively low quality video with extremely high quality 3D audio, recorded on-location in a forest using 20 microphones.

“That said, presence does not require every sense to be full bandwidth or maximum fidelity. There are plenty of examples where one low-quality sense allied to a high-quality sense results in very high interactivity. Humans are very adaptable,” finished Lombard.