Getting VR legs : a phenomenological investigation of presence and the affective body’s enactment of space in virtual environments

Coley, Jason
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Rouse, Rebecca
Chang, Ben
Gordon, Tamar
Zappen, James Philip
Holloway-Attaway, Lissa
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Communication and rhetoric
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Under this proposed theoretical framework, presence is recharacterized as a human body-computer interaction in which the normally nonconscious mechanisms for perceiving circumambient space confront the incorporeality of the digital stimuli supplied by the virtual reality technology, resulting in an affective awareness of virtual space pressing upon the body. Extrapolating upon Hansen’s arguments for the affective body as the ideal interface for digital information, this theoretical framework further posits that embodied movement—gestures, postures, and locomotions that are imbued with meaning according to affective spatial schemas—can be leveraged to enact compelling experiences of presence in virtual environments.
Two theoretical implications for achieving presence by satiating these affective appetites are identified: the body’s desire to (1.) manipulate its environment affectively and (2.) participate in roleplay. These theoretical implications are incorporated into a topological map for the conceptualization of a directionality of presence, an intended starting point for aiding designers and developers to create evermore compelling experiences of presence by exploiting the affective body’s desire to perform affective embodied movements.
The author interviewed designers, developers, researchers, and entrepreneurs who are reproducing a dominant model of gameplay in their efforts to create optimal experiences of presence and helping users acclimate to simulated forces and objects. The data for both the auto-phenomenological studies and interviews were analyzed using the process of horizontalization; significant statements were analyzed for meaning and then clustered thematically. Findings support the posited hypothesis that the body privileges those embodied movements that trigger the affective registers responsible for distal attribution in virtual environments, an affective appetite that can be leveraged to create more compelling experiences of “being there” in virtual spaces.
To investigate this hypothesis, the author applied an auto-phenomenological approach and conducted interviews with global community practitioners to investigate a specific experience of presence: “getting VR legs,” the process by which the body learns to orientate and navigate itself within virtual environments. As part of the phenomenological study, the author visited research sites and participated in several commercial and industry virtual reality and immersive technologies and experiences to investigate the phenomenological structure of the enaction of virtual space and its relation to presence.
Although decades of scholarship have attempted to classify and measure many diverse experiences of presence, there has yet been satisfactory explanations for the operational mechanisms for the phenomenon. Without fully understanding the underlying cognitive processes responsible for experiencing presence, designers and developers of immersive experiences cannot take full advantage of the potential of virtual reality technologies for interfacing with the human body. This research seeks a better understanding of presence by adapting Bergson’s work on embodied perception and Hansen’s theories of the affective body to introduce a new theoretical framework for presence that positions affectivity—the body’s capacity to affect and be affected—as one operational mechanism for spatial presence.
August 2019
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Dept. of Communication and Media
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
Rensselaer Theses and Dissertations Online Collection
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