Extract from research paper ‘The pinnacle of media-induced Telepresence will change our perception of reality’ (Poole-Andersson, 2010).

Theme Three

The most fascinating prospect of this investigation is how the pinnacle of media induced telepresence might change our perception of ‘reality’. This can be evidenced by looking at future technologies, in relation to vividness and interactivity (Steuer, 1995) and whether these media systems will facilitate the highest levels of telepresence for users. Steuer (1995, p. 46) described this prospect as “exciting because of the possibilities afforded by such systems to experience distant and nonexistent worlds, yet terrifying because of the blurring of distinction between representation and reality”.

In Dimensions Determining Telepresence, Steuer (1995), struggles to present a distinct correlation between the properties of vividness and interactivity (independent variables) and the experience of telepresence (dependent variable). The key reason for this seems to be the dependent variable, the perceiver of the medium, and variation of experience across different individual perceivers. Steuer (1995, p.50) cites the research of Laurel (1986, 1990, 1991) and determines that “willingness to interpret mediated experiences as if they are veridical, results from a complex interaction among factors including both the conscious desire to “let oneself go,” and less mindful processes entailed by the formal characteristics of the medium itself (see Reeves, 1991) and by the social content of that environment (see Nass & Steuer, 1993; Nass, Steuer, Henriksen, & Dryer, 1994). Crucially however, Steuer (1995, p 51) identifies that “vividness and interactivity are both positively related to telepresence” and that “the more vivid and the more interactive a particular environment is, the greater the sense of presence evoked by that environment”. This notion is confirmed by the Vividness and Interactivity matrix (Steuer, 1995) that classifies various technologies by the aforementioned. However, Steuer casts doubt upon his work by stating that telepresence “may be dependant on other mitigating factors”. These factors were identified by McLuhan (1964) who predicted that a medium designed to maximise vividness may decrease the ability of subjects to mindfully react with it in real-time. Steuer (1995, p.52) perpetuates this by stating that “rapid fire, high bandwidth, multi-sensory stimulation might engage such a great portion of the brain’s cognitive capacity that none is left for more mindful processes (see Lang, 1992; Reeves, Detenber, & Steuer, 1993)”. However I disagree with Steuer (1995, p.49-50) regarding this doubt about the determinants of telepresence. I propose a new theory based on his seminal article.

Firstly, for the purposes of investigation I propose that perceivers need not “suspend their disbelief” (for a more in-depth review of this topic, see Laurel, 1991, p.113) but only engage with the medium when they personally feel the content of mediated environment has taken precedence over the physical environment (Steuer, 1995). With limited telepresence this ‘choice’ refers to a conscious willingness to “let oneself go” in order that one might engage with the medium to experience other emotional responses (Laurel, 1991). However most crucially, logic dictates that at the pinnacle of telepresence exists a point at which the medium can match the capabilities of the human body (to which the variables are compared). At this point, crucially, the individual no longer has the choice of whether or not to engage because the medium provides maximum vividness and maximum interactivity, as compared to the physical environment. For example when one ‘suspends disbelief’ (Laurel, 1991) one is suspending ones belief that the mediated environment is not real, but when the mediated environment feels as ‘real’ as ‘reality’ (the physical environment) questions must be asked of the current definition of reality. I propose the aforementioned linear correlation between the variables of the interactivity and vividness matrix (Steuer, 1995) be called ‘optimal telepresence’ for the purposes of this investigation.

From the optimal telepresence correlation, a fascinating insight into the highest levels of telepresence can be deduced. I call this theory “The Uncertainty Triangle” (Fig. seven) and it relates to the point at which we must question the way in which ‘reality’ is perceived. As I have discussed previously Gibson (1976) informed Steuer’s paper with his five perceptual senses of man. Indeed the sub-categories of the “vividness” variable, breadth and depth, are measured against the capabilities of the human perceptual systems (Gibson, 1966) in the same way the “Interactivity” variable is measured against to the capabilities of the human body. Therefore, it is logical to propose that ones (natural) perception of “reality” is made up entirely from the combination of these sensory and perceptual stimuli, processed by the brain; “Cogito, ergo sum”. The Uncertainty Triangle is a conceptual arena in which one (alone) would not be able to distinguish between the mediated and the physical environment because the medium is capable of replicating or surpassing human perceptual and physical limits. An example of ‘exceeding’ human limits in terms of vividness would be the ability to sense heat like a snake and in terms of interactivity would be the ability to have the reflexes of a house-fly.