Presence, in its broadest sense, is a media user’s state that is characterized by the illusion of nonmediation. If present, media users are temporarily unaware of the mediated origin of their experience. Their thoughts, feelings, and behavior tend to react to the media content as if the portrayed scenery, persons, or objects were real, because the general artificiality of media imitation produced by human-made technology is not recognized (International Society for Presence Research 2001).
As a psychological state, presence is determined by the interplay of both situational or enduring individual factors, and environmental factors, which include qualities of the media technology and aspects of the content. The potential of the media technology to evoke illusions of nonmediation is addressed as its “immersive quality” (Slater & Steed 2000). The greater the likelihood that technological aspects or content factors foster the formation of presence, the more immersive is a medium. As any kind of media experience builds on subjective perceptions, however, low-immersive media might also initiate a state of presence if users are susceptible to forget about the illusory origins of their experiences (for relevant individual factors, like a person’s willingness to suspend disbelief, see Wirth et al. 2007).
The umbrella term “presence” has been picked up in diverse fields of communication and related disciplines. As a result of the diverse perspectives that have applied the term, presence has been understood in different ways. A review by Lombard and Ditton (1997) lists six different meanings, ranging from “presence as social richness” to “presence as transportation” to “presence as medium as social actor.” In general, a state of presence can occur in two distinct ways (Lombard & Ditton 1997): (1) “the medium can appear to be . . . transparent . . . as a large open window, with the user and the medium content (objects and entities) sharing the same physical environment” (invisible medium) or “the medium can appear to be transformed into something other than a medium” (transformed medium). In the context of presence that builds on an invisible medium, a popular classification is to distinguish spatial presence (sometimes addressed as physical presence or telepresence) from social presence.
Spatial presence can be defined as “a binary experience, during which perceived selflocation and, in most cases, perceived action possibilities are connected to a mediated spatial environment, and mental capacities are bound by the mediated environment instead of reality” (Wirth et al. 2007, 497). In short, spatial presence refers to a user’s “feeling of being there” in the mediated environment (Biocca 1997; Riva et al. 2003; Lee 2004). Research on spatial presence evolved in technology-oriented disciplines like computer science and engineering. The term was first coined by Minsky (1980). Particularly, researchers concerned with interactive teleworking applications and sophisticated virtual reality systems applied the construct to their studies (Steuer 1992). Spatial presence was deemed relevant as it was thought to affect a user’s task performance (Barfield et al. 1995). Some definitions that originated from this perspective characterized spatial presence solely on the basis of technological determinants. Among the most often cited factors are the degree of interactivity provided by a medium, and the number and balance of human sensory channels addressed by a medium (Steuer 1992; Biocca 1997).
More recently, the construct of spatial presence has also received the attention of researchers who are concerned with the description and explanation of experiential phenomena of media exposure and media effects. In this way, the perspective changed from rather technology-driven approaches to rather psychological interpretations (Ijsselsteijn et al. 2000). With the shift to a psychological perspective, the user’s attention to media content emerged as one of the central determinants of spatial presence (Draper et al. 1998). More recently, emotions and arousal have been addressed as important determinants of the formation of spatial presence as well (Baumgartner et al. 2006). With researchers from more diverse backgrounds starting to work on the construct, not only highly immersive media like virtual reality systems were deemed capable of evoking spatial presence, but also low-immersive media, for example, books (the so-called “book problem”). In sum, in the past the concept of spatial presence has been studied in the context of quite different media, like virtual reality environments, video games, the Internet, television, and books.
Throughout the past two decades, related approaches to nonmediation phenomena that emerged in other disciplines were continuously incorporated in research on spatial presence, particularly the study of transportation, which originated in literature research, conceptualizations of a user’s involvement with media content (Schubert et al. 2001), flow experiences (Draper et al. 1998), and explications about the perceived reality of authentic or fictional media content (Lee 2004). Today, the existing conceptualizations still differ in the way they define spatial presence as psychological state, for example, in terms of the dimensionality of the construct. Accordingly, they also highlight different determinants. For example, Schubert et al. (2001) argue that a user’s experience of self-location, his or her involvement, and the perceived realness of the media content resemble three dimensions of spatial presence. In a more recent conceptualization, Wirth et al. (2007) argue that involvement and realness resemble determinants, while they regard the user’s self-location and perceived action possibilities as actual dimensions of the construct. As the concept of spatial presence has been addressed from very heterogeneous areas of research, an interdisciplinary shared theoretical understanding that clearly distinguishes determinants, dimensions, and outcomes is still a major challenge of this line of research.
A broad range of measurements to assess spatial presence have been developed in the past (see www.presence-research.org for an overview; Laarni et al. in press). Certainly, the variety of theoretical approaches to spatial presence also accounts in part for the diversity of existing measurements (Schuemie et al. 2001). Post-test questionnaires are applied immediately after the exposure to a medium and have been the most common way to measure spatial presence in the past. The most popular questionnaires include the Presence Questionnaire, the ITC Sense of Presence Inventory, and the I-Group Presence Questionnaire. Recent methodological issues were concerned with the validity of existing questionnaires to assess spatial presence (Schuemie et al. 2001; Insko 2003), as well as with the different factor structures underlying existing paper-and-pencil measurements. Next to questionnaires, other subjective methods like thinkaloud have been applied to study spatial presence as well. Also, a multitude of objective measurements have been introduced in the past, like psychophysiological measures, postural responses, and functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Social presence can be defined as a “sense of being together” with one or more other social beings, although the others are fictional (like characters in a science-fiction movie) or mediated appearances of real counterparts (e.g., through camera recordings or as avatars; Biocca et al. 2003). The conceptualization of the term is still a little bit vague and the construct combines different aspects and outcomes of interpersonal encounters (Schroeder 2002).
The term was first introduced to the realm of media technologies by Short et al. (1976) in the context of mediated interpersonal communication. Social presence was defined as “the salience of the other in a mediated communication and the consequent salience of [the] interpersonal interactions” (Short et al. 1976, 65). The authors used the term for the users’ evaluation of the extent to which different communication media convey social cues. Accordingly, social presence was not conceptualized as an experience but rather as an attitude toward a medium that guides selective exposure behavior. Similar notions of social presence have been pursued in successive theoretical conceptualizations of interpersonal communication media, like the media richness theory.
In the context of virtual reality research, the term has been applied to describe the sense of being together in collaborative environments. Thus, the term changed to describe rather an experience than an attitude. For example, Biocca et al. (2003) construe social presence as a multidimensional experience that involves the feeling of sharing a space with another social being, being emotionally and cognitively connected to another person, and feeling reciprocally engaged in an interaction. Bente et al. (2005) argue that social presence builds on shared meaning and develops as intimateness, awareness, understanding, and contingency throughout the interaction. Still other researchers regard social presence as an experience, but argue for a distinction between feeling present with another entity and feeling connected to another entity.
So far only a few measurements have been developed for the study of social presence. Short et al. (1976) simply applied four semantic differential scales to assess the social qualities of a communication medium perceived by users (insensitive–sensitive, cold– warm, impersonal–personal, unsociable–sociable). Other recent paper-and-pencil tools have been introduced by Biocca et al. (2003) and others.
A reality is augmented, if in a real surrounding one or more objects or social entities are perceived as real that actually are displayed or imitated by human-made technology (Azuma 1997). Thus, in contrast to states of presence that build on an “invisible medium” (see above), in augmented reality it is not the media that create the illusion of an environment. Rather, the real environment of the user is enhanced by the mediated illusion of an object or social entity. Lombard and Ditton (1997) speak of a medium that is transformed into an object or social entity that is erroneously perceived as real. If nonmediated sensations occur this way, they are addressed as “presence as augmented reality.” For example, a hologram imitating a shelf in a real living-room could create an augmented reality. Another example would be glasses that enrich the perception of the real world by adding simulated objects or social beings to the perceived scenery.
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