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Babatunde Fatai
Babatunde Fatai

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The impact of Social presence and Co-presence on Virtual and Augmented reality.

What does Social presence mean?

“Virtual Reality is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
-Mark Zuckerberg

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to sit on your couch with your co-worker for a conversation over coffee, even if they are thousands of miles away on another continent? Not just hearing their voice nor seeing their face on your screen like you currently can on many platforms, but having them, or to be more precise, a virtual representation of them right there on your couch, as you converse? Virtual and Augmented reality (AR/VR) immersive technologies have made that possible for quite some time now.

You must have heard or read a thousand and one articles on what AR and VR are, so I won’t bore you with many historical details nor definitions; check HERE for a brief on those. I am more interested in their current advancements and prospects, how they have started shaping industries and are creating an ecosystem that may one day be bigger than most countries on earth, existing purely in the virtual world.

Comparing this ecosystem to a platform like zoom is highly short-sighted because the vision and current propagation go beyond attending meetings. People are willing to purchase virtual lands and invest insanely in abstract properties and items; as in the case of Genesis City, a plot of virtual land the size of Owerri city, with rumours of 1,100 square foot plot going for as much as $200,000. People are also willing to reinvent their images by becoming whoever or whatever they want just with the snap of their fingers, a true world without limitations except those they choose for themselves. It is indeed a fantastic thing to have expressed the last few sentences without once thinking I was describing a future to come or science fiction, but reality.

Social Presence refers to the degree to which one perceives the presence of participants in the communication. Social Presence theory argues that media differ in the ability to convey the psychological perception that other people are physically present due to the different capacity of media to transmit visual and verbal cues (e.g., physical distance, gaze, postures, facial expressions, voice intonation, and so on) (Fabio et al., in Advances in Computers, 2010) or to put it simply; it is the ability to feel like you are physically present with another person in a virtual space, a (true/deep) sense of presence.

Social presence is important because it goes beyond just communicating in real-time, which your phone and various meeting apps can do, to communicating and interacting as if you are physically together, with gestures, reactions, impressions, and interactions playing a very big role.

Attributes that drive Social presence

Seeing reality as a construct made up of tiny parts such as touch, smell, sound. Etc. that comes together to form the real has helped in replicating it; whatsoever is real (not abstract like joy or love), as long as it can be defined can be replicated. Hence, one can genuinely piece together the sets of actions, events, gestures and reaction that makes a physical meeting more favourable/immersive than a virtual one (say on zoom).

If these sets of attributes that makes a physical meeting different from a virtual one can be replicated (as they are already being done) then existing purely in a virtual world with a full sense of presence isn’t much of a problem, many would think, no matter how much they can be represented virtually through Avatars and extremely immersive gadgets, things like smell and touch cannot be, but even that line of thought is archaic because odours and touches, sensory immersion, can and have already been replicated.

Touch and Feel (Teslasuit & Tactsuit)

One key attribute that makes a physical interaction with friends and family more memorable than a virtual one is the sense of touch. One cannot deny the presence of another if they can interact with each other by touching.

It doesn’t even have to be intense continual touching. A simple handshake speaks volumes. A warm hug decimates any comparison with a Zoom call. Also, when interacting in virtual environments, feeling the gunshots (to a mild degree), punches to the body, tap on the face with the aid of haptic face covers, and the warmth of a handshake significantly changes things.

This is what the likes of Teslasuit & Tactsuit bring to the furthering of social presence in the virtual reality space, with their full-body haptic wireless suits, which possesses multiple haptic points capable of simulating a range of physical sensations all over the body, all in the bid to increase immersion and improve human performance.

Teslasuit Image

They are not the only player in the field, and neither is touching or feeling the only part of sensory immersion. Still, it becomes increasingly harder to deny the presence of an individual that can punch you right in the face, or rub your shoulders lightly during a conversation, even if they are thousands of miles away.

Smell (Nosulus Rift & Feelreal)

Although it may not seem so at first, olfaction plays a significant role in regulating a wide variety of human behaviours. The ability to smell undoubtedly plays a vital role in affirming our reality.

Hence, it isn’t a surprise that a device like Nosulus Rift and Feelreal exists already, to bring the smell directly to your nose, or as a Ubisoft spokesperson puts it; “The Nosulus Rift is a fully functional mask using sensors activated through inaudible sound waves in the in-game fart sound, every time the player makes use of his nefarious [fart] powers, Each time the sensors are activated, they trigger the odour’s puff, meticulously and without mercy!”.

Yup, not only can you perceive the aromatic or pungent smell, but you would also not be spared the melodic sound of your friend letting one loose in your virtual space.

Nosulus Rift

Feelreal upped the game with their scent generator, which holds an easily replaceable cartridge containing nine individual aroma capsules.

With the ability to choose and combine any of the 255 scents available in their store, install and change them depending on the type of VR experience. The device caught my attention mainly because of its compatibility with existing VR devices and its usage beyond smell.

Feelreal

Taste - Eating in virtual reality

Two things are clear when it comes to how taste is approached in Virtual reality and how it contributes to social presence. First, the environment matters in how we taste our food. Hence virtual reality can be used to improve one’s perception of how food tastes significantly. An important example of this was a research carried out by Cornell Cals college:

About 50 panelists who used virtual reality headsets as they ate were given three identical samples of blue cheese. The study participants were virtually placed in a standard sensory booth, a pleasant park bench and the Cornell cow barn to see custom-recorded 360-degree videos
The panelists were unaware that the cheese samples were identical, and rated the pungency of the blue cheese significantly higher in the cow barn setting than in the sensory booth or the virtual park bench.
To control for the pungency results, panelists also rated the saltiness of the three samples – and researchers found there was no statistical difference among them.

“When we eat, we perceive not only just the taste and aroma of foods, we get sensory input from our surroundings – our eyes, ears, even our memories about surroundings,” (Robin Dando, associate professor of food science and senior author of the study).

Secondly, taste can be simulated and stimulated (though experiments seem to be in the early stages). Some experiments with “virtual food” use electronics to emulate the taste and feel of the real thing, even when there’s nothing in your mouth. At the same time, other experiments focus on thermal stimulation of taste. This tech could add new sensory inputs to virtual reality or augment real-world dining experiences, especially for people with restricted diets or health issues that affect their ability to eat.

Unreal: this tastes delicious

Hence, if you can see your friend (or an avatar/version of them they choose to express), touch them, smell them (and their tremendous fart!), interact with them in real-time, have a few meals. At the same time, at it, all on a “Virtual platform”, how long do you think it would take you to forget that you are actually in a virtual world and not a real one? Therein lies the fantastic powers of social presence, an absolute sense of being with them, being there for them when needed and making and sharing memories with them even if you are thousands of miles apart.

I implore you not to get lost in definitions or the limitations of the human imagination. When adamant people stand their ground on why the virtual can never be as “real” as the real world, you should understand that they either haven’t experienced enough, seen enough, or believed enough in our collective intelligence to pull this off. It has been done (though there is still considerable room for improvement), it is being done, and you can be part of it, at the very minimum, as an experiencer.

The importance of social co-presence

If you’re watching someone else use VR, it’s hard to tell what’s going on and what they’re seeing. And if you’re in VR with someone else, there aren’t easy ways to see their facial expressions without an avatar representation.

Many people complain about how much virtual reality isolates its users from the environment and those around them. This is why social co-presence is essential. How do we maintain the seamless social connection between real and virtual worlds, especially between people who may or may not be in the same AR/VR experiences?

Many companies are tackling this in various ways. Immersion in the virtual world is essential, as is collaboration in the real world, even in a virtual experience.

Google headset removal and Oculus reverse passthrough

It is one thing to feel the presence of your friend in a virtual call. Another to see their expressions as they undergo the experience, which is a significant obstacle to attaining social co-presence. Using a collection of techniques, Google Machine Perception researchers, in collaboration with Daydream Labs and YouTube Spaces, aim to solve this problem by digitally recreating your face in place of the VR headset blocking it.

Daydream Labs

On the other hand, Facebook had a different mode of approach with their reverse passthrough, which essentially shows a render of the VR user’s eyes on 3D displays at the front of the headset.

Reverse passthrough

So both Google and Facebook’s approaches emphasize the importance of eye contact, even if you have a four-pound VR headset on and are in a virtual experience. Isolation which seemed like a downside to immersive technologies, seems not to be an option with these sorts of experiments; isolation is not an option when social presence and co-presence are concerned.

Conclusion

Many believe the future of collaboration and of social experiences is Virtual and Augmented reality technology, and when these technologies work well they deliver social presence.

There are many parts of these technology that need to come together to deliver a flawless experience indistinguishable from reality and most of them are still in their infancy, the level of innovation going on in the space is mind blowing with so many brands working not just on hardware but also on improving the software, Facebook’s Oculus for one is dominating the VR consumer space and hinting Augmented reality Ray-Ban smart glasses, something many are most excited about.

There are indeed many players worth mentioning aside Oculus, such as Apple, Snap, Supernatural, Valve, Qualcomm, Spatial, Unity and the list goes on, some focused on building the right platforms to deliver these social experiences while others focused on hardware and software… together they are shaping the social future, together in our own little ways as developers and enthusiasts, we are shaping the social experience of the future and I do not see us stopping anytime soon.

Note:

Please CLICK HERE to listen to Zuckerberg describe the future of ARVR from Facebook’s perspective (quite amazing and an inspiration for this piece).

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