Why I Study Presence

by Carrie Heeter, February  10, 2014

In the early 1990s I designed and studied virtual reality experiences. My generation dreamed of VR experiences as real as Star Trek’s holodeck. (For newer people, think The Matrix or Avatar.) Our goal was to design systems and experiences so real you felt like you were actually inside of the virtual world. VR experiences often required a $150,000 system, including heavy, bulky 3D immersive headsets, position trackers, lots of wires, and expensive computers.

In 2014 my company, Mindtoon Lab, designs and studies  meditation experiences, played inside of your body and mind with eyes closed. But I’m still fascinated by many of the same issues.  Technologically mediated experiences and meditation experiences both involve designed experiences, and both ultimately depend upon the experiencer.

My VR experiences were built with the Mandala Second Person VR system, using a video camera and blue screen chromakey key to separate the person from the background and insert them into a computer-generated scene.  Edge detection software could be programmed to react when their body touched a virtual animated object. (Today, Microsoft’s Kinect and other systems do the same and more.)

Heeter et al. 3D Undersea VR Experience, exhibited at CyberArts, 1990

Players stood in front of a blue screen looking at a 3D camera and a large screen. They saw video of themselves on the large screen, inside of 3D “undersea” video recorded at the Monterrey aquarium.  A small animated octopus swam into view. When it reached the player, it grabbed onto whatever body part it touched, held on, and made a gurgling sound.  If you moved slowly, it moved with you. If you moved quickly, you shook it off and it swam away.  After a while, a much larger octopus showed up and the interaction happened again.

The physical feeling when you saw an animated octopus grab and hold onto your hand or head or arm or shoulder was stunningly real.  You felt the touch viscerally even though nothing touched your physical body.  The slight moment of concern you felt when the much larger octopus appeared was funny, but vivid.

I asked participants, which was your real self, the being on the screen, the being the camera was pointed at, or both?  About one fourth (26%) were firmly stuck in the boring old real world, and for them, their real self was the being the camera was pointed at.  Twenty-nine percent had a connection to the real world that was easy to leave behind – they reported that “the being on the screen” (video of themselves inside of the undersea scene) was their real self.  And the remaining 42% felt that both the screen representation and their physical bodies were equally real (Heeter, 1992).

Researchers in my field study “presence.”  The academic  journal,  Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments celebrates its 22nd birthday this year.  A 2007 review of presence literature identified over 1800 published works on the topic (Lombard & Jones, 2007).  The International Society for Presence Research regularly shares related news stories in their blog http://ispr.info/.

(Tele)presence is awkwardly and formally defined like being taken in by a really good magic trick:

“Presence is a psychological state or subjective perception in which even though part or all of an individual’s current experience is generated by and/or filtered through human-made technology, part or all of the individual’s perception fails to accurately acknowledge the role of the technology in the experience.“

Survey questions like these measure the subjective experience of presence in a mediated experience (Lombard et al., 2000):

  • “To what extent did you feel like you were inside the environment?”
  • “To what extent did you feel immersed in the environment?”
  • “To what extent did you feel surrounded by the environment?”
  • “To what extent did you feel submerged in the environment?”
  • “How much did the experience seem to transport you into the environment?”
  • “How much did you feel as if you were inside the environment observing the events?”
  • “How much did you feel as if you were inside the environment participating in the events?”
  • “How much did it feel as if you visited another place?”

Circling back to meditation, meditation typically begins with relaxing the system, calming the mind, and focusing attention on breath or other internal sensations.  Doing this is a skill that can be practiced and improved. I find it’s harder on days when life is unusually exciting or upsetting.  Unlike watching a movie where as viewers we expect the moviemaker to entertain us, in meditation the meditator clearly plays a very active role in having the experience.

Some meditation focuses on breath or breath and movement. Other meditation experiences introduce a place or other object of meditation once the system and mind are calmed.  I find myself eager to understand different people’s subjective experiences during these kinds of meditation experiences.  Much like (tele)presence, individual differences in how people experience mediation and details in the design of meditation experiences  impact meditation’s effectiveness and outcomes.


Heeter, C. (1992). “Being There: The subjective experience of presence,” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, MIT Press.

Lombard, M. et al. (2000). Resources for the Study of Presence.  http://ispr.info/about-presence-2/tools-to-measure-presence/ispr-measures-compendium/

Lombard, M., & Jones M. T. (2007). Identifying the (Tele)Presence Literature. PsychNology Journal, 5(2), 197 – 206.