Presence, Place, Phenomenology, and VR

I’ve found only one text that discusses the interconnection of communication and virtual reality exclusively – Biocca and Levy’s edited collection, Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. Originally published in 1995, one might think that the text contains outdated information, which may be true for some of the chapters. However, many of the text’s chapters are highly relevant and applicable to present research in the field. I often find citations to chapters of the text (particularly those authored by Biocca) in articles published in Frontiers.

Virtual Reality and Communication Studies

Biocca and Levy’s collection seems to have a specific focus on individual user experience within a virtual environment(s), describing the notion of presence, assemblages for sensorimotor augmentation, and interfaces design and experience. The introduction of the text begins with a bold claim: “Virtual reality is not a technology; it is a destination.” (4). Each chapter of the text then articulates how we might begin of thinking of users emerging in virtual destinations – what virtual/digital communicative elements of VR (as a communication system/interface) transport the user into the virtual environment.  In Biocca’s vision, Communication systems (VR particularly) should catalyze “nothing less than the full immersion of the human sensorimotor channels into a vivid computer-generated experience…” and “In the ideal system, the body is wrapped in communication and pulsates with information.” (17). This description seems like a fictional technology in one of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, yet it is a reality when we consider my previous discussions on the affordance of VR. 

Taken from:
Biocca, F., & Levy, M. R. (Eds.). (2013). Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Levy (in his chapter Virtual reality as a communication system) suggests that VR isn’t a technology that transports things or experiences, but ideas (23). He expounds on his argument by citing a portion of Tom Furness’s (“Air force VR pioneer and leading engineering research”) address at the IEEE Virtual Reality Annual Symposium “advanced interfaces will provide an incredible new mobility for the human race. We are building transportation systems for the senses … the remarkable promise that we can be in another place or space without moving our bodies into that space.” (23). A communication interface is, according to Levy’s equation communication interface = (physical media, codes, information) + sensorimotor channels. To study and examine how the “VR interface” works, we must think of VR in terms of human presence in virtual reality environments.

Steuer’s chapter Defining virtual reality: dimensions determining telepresence indicates that the best way to understand communication through VR (or VR as a communication system/interface) is through the study of telepresence among users. Steur notes “…the telepresence view focuses attention on the relationship between an individual who is both a sender and a receiver, and on the mediated environment with which he or she interacts. Information is not transmitted from sender to receiver; rather, mediated environments are created and then experienced” challenging the sender-receiver model ever present in communication and rhetorical studies (at the time of the publication and even in the present) (38).  Dramatic Narrative, sound, interactivity, vividness, and fidelity of movement (the naturalness of actual physical movement mapped into the virtual world) are affordances that not only allow users to feel presence/telepresence in a virtual environment, but also affordances attributed to inducing degrees of immersion (221; 260; 59-63; 41-49).  

Phenomenology of Virtual Place

While Biocca and Levy’s text is impressive in its contents, there is far less focus on the experience of virtual places and what it means to experience place virtually. Champion’s collection, The Phenomenology of Real and Virtual Places, supplements this gap. Many of the chapters of Champion’s collection echo ideologies evident in spatial rhetoric, ambient rhetoric, new materialism and new media. Each chapter describes how virtual places are akin to real places in that both communicate or encode information and have agency. Reinhard (author of the Landscape Archaeology in Skyrim VR chapter) eloquently states that the focus on “the interaction of materials and agents, where landscape [or place] itself is an agent, allows us to consider alternative landscapes, where they are, how they work, and how they can be observed as phenomena.” (24).  He goes on to note that “understanding a landscape and all of its relationships, which include biography, place, motility, mediation, agency/aesthetics, well-being, conflict, contestation, nature, culture and scene” opens our eyes (so to speak) to place-as-agent (30). I would argue that this same framework would be useful for scholars attempting to describe how VR environments operate rhetorically.

Janz’s chapter, Virtual place and Virtualized Places, discusses the phenomenon of virtualization and virtuality, where virtualization is “the digital – discrete, disconnected, codeable, and iterable…” while virtuality is “analog, continuous, connected, and unique… A virtualization is ultimately an abstraction, whereas the virtual always remains tied to the concrete” (61). He goes on to note that an “optical illusion” (e.g. a virtual environment) is “not a representation of reality, but rather a creation of a reality out of relationships between elements” (61). In essence, what this means is that world building in virtual reality is not successful by simply replicating photorealistic worlds – rather a virtual reality environment is successful when it persuades its audience that “meaningful action of some sort has happened.” (62). This is best facilitated, argues Janz (and I would have to agree) by creating environments that are playful, where users co-invent/co-author VR places by discovery through ludic expression/interactions (63-67). Citing Deleuze and Fink, Janz indicates that play is (citing Fink specifically) “creative bringing-forth, it is a production,” which suggests that play is a form of composing whereby individuals “create reality” and realize alternate possibilities with and through the environments they dwell in.

VR and Ambient Rhetoric

As I read through these texts (as well as the collection Immersed in Media which is a much more contemporary text on presence/telepresence), I was reminded of Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric – specifically his discussion on chora (from Plato – how places are constructed for societal needs and how societal needs construct place). Rickert writes “Rhetoric accomplishes its work by inducing us to shift, at least potentially, how we dwell or see ourselves dwelling in the world,” where dwelling is “how people come together to flourish… in a place… or how they come together in the continual making of a place; at the same time, that place is interwoven into the way they have come to be as they are – and as further disclosed through their dwelling practices.”

We are, as Rickert writes, emerging in “an age of ambience” both in analog and digital forms, “one in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve” (1). I would add to his list the boundaries between the virtual and the real as well, given the research of scholars in both the Biocca and Levy and Champion texts. Researching the implications of VR as rhetorical technology/experience would greatly contribute to the body of scholarship on ambient rhetoric (as well as Digital Rhetoric, New Materialism, and New Media studies), particularly since VR exists in the liminal space between the subject/object, human/nonhuman, etc., utilizing sensorimotor stimulation to facilitate immersion in and discovery of alternate possibilities, experiences, or worlds.

Final Thoughts

From an embodied cognition perspective, cognition is seen as an emergent property of interactions between brain, body and the physical-and social environment. 

The sensation of presence induced by immersive media is intriguing from a rhetorical standpoint. Metaphors are incarnated in the senses in virtual worlds – a kind of sensory driven semiotic that Lakoff discusses frequently in his lectures and texts on embodied cognition. Lakoff notes embodied cognition “ is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.” (2011). If we think of communication as an assemblage of neural stimuli, expanding from a simple model of communication-as-aural-or-written, we begin to grasp how sensory stimuli can persuade, inform, and inspire. Communication becomes dynamic and multidimensional/multisensory – we begin to comprehend what it is to compose for multiple neural networks simultaneously through virtual modulation.  

Research suggests that VR technologies can modify behaviors, make people more empathetic, convince someone that they have embodied new forms (e.g., in the VR experience Eagle Flight, you glide and soar through a landscape, exploring the geography to discover new objects, entities, scenes, or sensations). The research is exciting… but it’s often difficult to consider these studies substantial. After all, VR is still in its infancy, not yet “mainstreamed” (i.e. adopted by a massive amount of the population) and still lacking in its affordances. We have yet to investigate the emerging VR community and its users outside of laboratory settings, which we must research in order to understand VR’s societal and communicative implications. This is, perhaps, the weakest aspect of both the Biocca and Levy and Champion collections – both texts address VR use in isolation or as experienced by the individual user, which is just a small component to the rhetorical ecosystem of VR.

MEU is a fascinating VR project worth looking into, and it very much illustrates the comments I’ve made and the texts I’ve discussed. I’m currently waiting to see if I’ve been granted access to the closed alpha of MEU. However, Kent Bye’s podcast with the developers will further your understanding of the mission, science, and technology behind MEU as an embodied social platform (Kent Bye’s content is always fascinating – I strongly recommend his podcast).

In my next entry, I’ll turn my attention to Jaron Lanier and his text The Dawn of the New Everything. The text is an interesting assemblage of multiple genres, providing an autoethnographically situated history of VR technology. Perhaps I’ll emulate this style in my next entry and draw from my personal experiences in VR to better exemplify VR enviornments and interactions through a first-person perspective.

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