In my paper last week, struggling to find a way to describe the environmental “sense (or spirit) of place” that may drive emotional engagement in (games and) cultural heritage environments, I chose to use the word “Presence.” I first came across in Pinchbeck’s writing but I was nervous about using it, until, by coincidence, Erik Champion also used the word when he commented on this post.
There are two reasons why I hadn’t used it before, and why I’m still unsure about it: Firstly, presence is a term used to talk about virtual environments (like games) but I’m looking to apply what I learn to real environments (cultural heritage). Secondly, I worry (as I mentioned in my presentation) that presence may encompass all (or most) of what I’m currently calling “emotional drivers,” rather than being one driver.
But there needed to be a word there, so i flippantly settled on presence, and promised myself I’d investigate it later,
Later starts now, and Erik handily left me some links in a comment on this post. I’ve only been able to read his own co-authored “Evaluating presence in cultural heritage projects” (2011Pujol, P. & Champion, E.) so far the other two come from a journal Southampton doesn’t subscribe to, so I’m hoping I can fix an inter-library loan. However, this paper works quite well as a primer on what Erik calls “Cultural Presence.”
Lets kick off with how they start their paper with a little bit of history:
Presence originates from the term ‘telepresence’, made famous by the computer scientist Marvin Minksy in a 1980 paper of the same name (Minsky 1980). From around 1991 (the date of the first issue of the MIT journal Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments), presence has been typically defined as the capacity of the technology to make the user feel transported into a remote place and be able to efficiently interact with it.
Of course, to be honest, it looks like it started out as, as my science adviser used to say in Civilization, “a mainly military technology,” designed to help drone pilots in Colorado feel transported to remote mountains on the Afgan/Pakistan border and “efficiently interact” with jihadi hideouts. But it soon found civilian uses.
Archaeologists have long been using computer modelling to help visualise sites, “rebuilding” what might today be ruins, or virtually “restoring” buildings that have seen centuries of modification. The primary purpose of such models has been experimental, helping the researcher compare hypotheses. Of course once these models have been made, people want to share them, with each other and with the public. Sometime they are shared incredibly badly, even now. One of the presenters at the York Digital Heritage conference seemed surprised that a computer model that was a outcome of a research project was, when displayed in a shop window, totally ignored by the passers-by. But when its done well, its done with the intention of transporting the audience to a particular place and time, and that’s where presence comes in. As Pujol and Champion say:
Presence is typically seen in academic research as the aim of virtual reality environments. Since ‘virtual heritage’ is the name VR applications are given when used for the dissemination of cultural heritage, it logically follows that in VR applied to cultural heritage, a meaningful sense of presence is also the intended outcome.
However they follow that up with a warning that cultural heritage interpretation isn’t just about how buildings look. They argue that to thing of virtual heritage as simply the re-creation of buildings or other “tangible” artifacts in the digital domain is to ignore the importance of human interaction, ritual, communication, symbolism and representation and all the other intangibles that are part of culture. They also quote Stone and Ojika (2000, Virtual heritage: what next?. IEEE Multimedia, 7 (2), 73–74):
[Virtual heritage is] . . . the use of computer-based interactive technologies to record, preserve, or recreate artefacts, sites and actors of historic, artistic, religious, of cultural significance and to deliver the results openly to a global audience in such a way as to provide formative educational experiences through electronic manipulations of time and space.
But here is where I begin to worry about the idea of presence. Because I’m not convinced that “the use of computer-based interactive technologies … to provide formative educational experiences through electronic manipulations of time and space” needs to be about immersive virtualisation.
You see, I very much enjoy the model of “Infinite Possibility” set out bu Pine and Korn (2011) in the book of the same name. Their claim is that Digital Technology offers so much more than Virtual (or even Augmented) Reality. We should, they argue, be thinking in terms of all the possible combinations of the variables of the Reality (Time, Space and Matter) and the equivalent variables of the digital Virtuality (for want of better words: no-time, no-space and no-matter). The diagesis of a computer game, or VR model, is a function of these three no-variables, as it is made of bits of computer code. But run that virtual world through a pair of VR goggles, or even a humble Tom-Tom navigator, and you suddenly have Augmented reality (Time and space, but no-matter). Conversely, use a wii-controller to are intmanipluate a computer game and suddenly you find yourself in the realm of no-time and no-space, but with matter – what Pine and Korn call Augmented Virtuality.
Superimpose a different time (or no-time) on space and matter, and you have what they call warped reality:
Such reality-based time travel happens whenever experiences simulate another time… such as Renaissance Fairs and living history museums (Plimouth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, and the like) or transport us … even into the future (albeit a fictional future) such as at, yes, Star Trek conventions.
In these warped realities, a cultural heritage audience is able to participate in the construction of realities that capture objects and processes of scientific, social or spiritual value [and presents them] as accurately, authentically, and engagingly as possible. Places like Plimouth Plantation share their work in a sensitive, safe and durable manner to as wide and long-term an audience as possible, to provide an effective and inspirational learning environment that best communicates the intended pedagogical aims. Every italicised statement here actually comes from Pujol and Champion’s summary of what every good Virtual Heritage project should be. And yet Plimouth Plantation and its like a currently entirely analogue creations, and that no-one would consider applying the word “virtual” to. I think, and Pine and Korn imply, that digital technology has the potential to greatly enhance warped reality experiences, without making them virtual. I’d also argue that cultural “presence” occurs in these warped reality spaces, and yet … and yet, can it only apply to Virtual worlds?
Handily, Pujol and Champion have a crack at unpicking the definitions of presence for me. Starting with the idea that the ideal is a sense of being there, or blanking out the digital mediation of screen and controller, they touch upon immersion as a product of field of view and optical resolution. They also briefly summarize the idea that the human component of the system is likely to respond to the affordancies offered by the VR according to their interests, if the virtual component can in turn respond in a realistic way. They touch upon co-presence (sharing the VR with other users) before arguing that social presence (interacting with other users and virtual agents) is vitally important idea in the “potential [their emphasis] convergence between the presence and cultural heritage fields.”
So already we can see that the concept of presence is a very complex and even ambiguous construct: there are several definitions based on disparate theories, which focus on specific aspects or give different names to the same concept, partially overlapping or even contradicting each other. Therefore, the conventional notion of presence as the sensation of ‘being there’ is a highly simplified way of expressing an internal perception of the environment and of ourselves in relation to it. A more comprehensive explanation would be that the sense of presence results from the interaction of various factors. These factors depend both on the system (immersivity, visual accuracy, real-time physical and social interactivity, invisibility of devices, consistency of the content) and on the participant (perception, attention, empathy, engagement, meaningfulness or relevance of the content, control, suspension of disbelief).
They go on to try and define “cultural presence,” citing and earlier work by Champion (2005, Cultural presence. In: S. Dasgupta, ed. Encyclopedia of virtual communities ad technologies) to suggest that “cultural presence corresponds to the feeling that people from a specific culture occupy or have occupied a virtual environment and transformed it into a culturally meaningful place.” This is something I recognise from what the National Trust tries to do in the places it looks after. But, they say, such “environments represent a palimpsest in which past social interactions are layered and carved into the fabric of the environment. Although visitors can see ‘culture’, they cannot participate in it, either due to a lack of culturally constrained creative understanding or because the originators have long since passed away.”
So, is the previously mentioned “social presence” the key? Possibly not. Pujol and Champion briefly look at chatrooms, virtual communities and video games. The social interaction in chatrooms is fleeting and non-permanent. Virtual communities on the other hand, “do establish rules and elements of identity; nonetheless, their limited virtuality and transient ubiquity ironically prevents them from owning a sense of cultural place, where identity is expressed and recognized through dynamic processes that are materially situated.” (Hmmm Second Lifers may disagree – see my forthcoming report from Decoding the Digital). Of the three, they think, games have the most potential for social presence, because of their interactivity and exploration, virtual agents and (sometimes) co-operative play. Game mechanics though, can sometimes get in the way of cultural learning.
They summarise their discussion of cultural presence with the following:
So cultural presence in the cultural heritage field is not limited to the reconstruction of a place; ideally it would also encourage empathy, interaction and collaboration to enhance awareness and understanding of past or foreign cultures. So for cultural presence, ‘presence’ is the means and ‘culture’ is the goal. Unlike the test environments of typical presence research, virtual heritage projects should not aim at the fidelity of representation of the world in general, but towards a cultural context, containing not only objects and active agents but also the inter-relationship of their situated beliefs and values. Hence, presence becomes a ‘being – not only physically but also socially, culturally – there and then’.
Which is interesting, because in that whole paragraph virtual reality isn’t once mentioned. Is it taken as read? Or is it not required?