Presence in Virtual Reality (VR)

Your constantly-updated definition of Presence in Virtual Reality (VR) and collection of videos and articles

What is Presence in Virtual Reality (VR)?

Presence refers to the subjective feeling of “being there” in a virtual environment as if a user is truly present within it. It encompasses the psychological and emotional connection users establish with the virtual environment.

Presence is both a psychological state and a subjective perspective because a user’s personal experience informs how they experience the virtual world. Their feelings are created and/or filtered by the virtual world and connected technology.

Presence is vital in virtual reality (VR) because it fundamentally defines the quality of the user's experience. A heightened sense of presence leads to increased user engagement, emotional involvement, and a stronger connection with the VR environment. 

This video contains an exercise that will encourage you to think of ways to induce immersion in a VR experience.

Presence is closely associated with VR rather than augmented reality (AR). AR overlays digital information onto the real world to enhance actual surroundings. While AR can provide a sense of integration between the digital and physical realms, presence doesn’t apply in the same way in AR as it does in VR. Nonetheless, AR can offer a form of presence when digital elements seamlessly merge with the real world, providing an engaging mixed-reality experience with distinctions from typical VR experiences.

Presence vs Immersion

Presence and immersion are related concepts in virtual reality (VR), but they have distinct characteristics.

Presence is about the user's perception and mental state and focuses on how effectively the virtual environment can make them forget the real world. It relies on the user's feeling of "being there," even though they are fully aware of the virtual environment's objects, events, and characters, and sometimes disregard the technology itself. On the other hand, immersion is primarily about the technology and how effectively it can engage the user's senses to create a convincing virtual environment.

A high level of presence means that users truly feel like they are in the virtual world, and they might not be as concerned about the quality of the technology, as long as the illusion remains intact. A high level of immersion contributes to the creation of a convincing virtual environment, making it easier for users to suspend disbelief.

Presence is influenced by immersion. A highly immersive VR system is more likely to induce a sense of presence. Both immersion and presence aim to make the user's experience in VR as engaging and realistic as possible. Ultimately, both concepts are centered around the user's experience and perception of a virtual environment.

An illustration with five different icons, each representing a different tip for designing for immersion and presence. They include visual realist, spatial audio, interactivity and agency, narrative and engagement, and balance realism and safety.

To create immersive and presence-inducing VR experiences, you should pay close attention to various design elements.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Illusions of Presence and How to Design for Them

Illusions of presence in VR refer to the perceptual tricks and psychological states that make users feel as if they are actually present in a virtual environment, even though they are aware that it is a digital simulation. These illusions are a result of technology-driven immersion and encompass:

The Illusion of Being in a Stable Spatial Place

Users feel like they are in a physical environment within the virtual world. This illusion is created when sensory input from the VR experience aligns with real-world experiences. A stable sense of place is crucial to maintain a sense of presence.

As a designer, you must ensure that the VR environment is spatially consistent. Visual and auditory cues should match users' real-world experiences. This means objects and sounds should behave as they would in the physical world, which provides users with a stable sense of place. For instance, if you’re in a forest, you would hear the crunch of leaves and earth underfoot. Sounds of birds chirping, insects buzzing would surround you and possibly a steam bubbling in the distance.

The Illusion of Self-Embodiment

This illusion involves the perception that the user has a body within the virtual world. Even when users are disembodied (lacking a visible virtual body), they can still experience a strong sense of presence. When a user's virtual body matches their movements and physical sensations (e.g., feeling something in the virtual world touch their skin), presence is enhanced.

Whenever possible, provide users with a virtual body or avatar within the VR environment. The virtual body should ideally match users' real-world movements. This contributes to the perception that they have a presence within the virtual space. For example, in a VR game, you should see your own virtual hands as you move your real hands. When you raise your real hand, your virtual hand in the game also rises, and when you wave, your virtual hand waves too. This kind of self-embodiment makes you feel like you're inside the game as if your virtual hands are your own.

The Illusion of Physical Interaction

Interaction with the virtual environment is vital for presence. When users can see, hear, or feel the consequences of their actions in the virtual world, it enhances their sense of presence. This illusion can be achieved through various feedback mechanisms, such as haptic feedback, audio cues, or visual responses.

Design interactions that provide feedback to users. When users take actions in the virtual world, they should experience corresponding sensory feedback. Imagine you're in a VR cooking game. You reach out to grab a virtual egg with a controller, and as you do, you not only see the virtual egg in your hand but also feel a slight vibration in the controller, simulating the sensation of holding an egg. When you crack the egg on the virtual frying pan, you hear the sound of the eggshell cracking and feel a small haptic jolt in the controller, mimicking the impact.

The Illusion of Social Communication

Social presence involves feeling as if one is genuinely interacting with virtual characters or other users within the VR environment. The realism of these interactions, whether through verbal communication or body language, contributes to the sense of social presence. Even relatively low-fidelity representations can evoke a strong social presence, and it's a key aspect of many VR applications, such as multiplayer games or virtual meetings.

In applications where social interaction is key, create realistic interactions between users and virtual characters or other users. Realistic communication through voice, gestures, and body language enhances social presence. For instance, In a multiplayer VR game set in a bustling virtual city, your avatars replicate your real-life gestures and actions. When you share a laugh with your friend or exchange a virtual high-five, your avatars respond in kind. Even when you greet another player with a wave, your avatars reflect your actions, creating a strong sense of social interaction and presence in the urban virtual environment.

Learn More about Presence

Learn how to design a strong sense of presence in VR with our course: UX Design for Virtual Reality.

Read up on “What is Virtual Reality (VR)” in this piece. 

Read Jason Jerald’s comprehensive book on VR, which talks about the concept of presence in-depth, The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality.

Cornel Hillmann’s book UX for XR: User Experience Design and Strategies for Immersive Technologies, provides an in-depth examination of UX design for VR and beyond.

Get a deeper understanding of Immersion in this piece. 

Read about why presence is important in VR in this blog article, “What Is ‘Presence’ in VR, and Why Is it So Important?”.

Literature on Presence in Virtual Reality (VR)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Presence in Virtual Reality (VR) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Presence in Virtual Reality (VR)

Take a deep dive into Presence in Virtual Reality (VR) with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .

Virtual reality is a multidimensional universe that invites you to bring stories to life, transform digital interactions, educate with impact and create user-centric and unforgettable experiences. This course equips you with the skills and knowledge to embrace the possibilities and navigate the challenges of virtual reality.

UX Design for Virtual Reality is taught by UX expert Frank Spillers, CEO and founder of the renowned UX consultancy Experience Dynamics. Frank is an expert in the field of VR and AR, and has 22 years of UX experience with Fortune 500 clients including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP, and Capital One.

In UX Design for Virtual Reality, you’ll learn how to create your own successful VR experience through UX design. Informed by technological developments, UX design principles and VR best practices, explore the entire VR design process, from concept to implementation. Apply your newfound skills and knowledge immediately though practical and enjoyable exercises.  

In lesson 1, you’ll immerse yourself in the origins and future potential of VR and you’ll learn how the core principles of UX design apply to VR. 

In lesson 2, you’ll learn about user research methods, custom-tailored for the intricacies of VR.

In lesson 3, you’ll investigate immersion and presence and explore narrative, motion and sounds as design tools. 

In lesson 4, you’ll delve into interface and interaction design to create your own user-friendly, compelling and comfortable VR experiences.

In lesson 5, you’ll gain insights into prototyping, testing, implementing VR experiences, and conducting thorough evaluations.

After each lesson you’ll have the chance to put what you’ve learned into practice with a practical portfolio exercise. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll have a case study to add to your UX portfolio. This case study will be pivotal in your transition from 2D designer to 3D designer. 

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