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Article on Reality and Our Sense of Presence

Article on Reality and Our Sense of Presence



Presence is concerned with the sense of being there. The human brain and senses provide this experience of presence in terms of colours, sounds, movement, texture, feelings etc.

Achieving an Information Society with access for all requires the development of more natural ways of interacting with computer and information technology systems. This for example, will help to eliminate barriers that arise from difficulties that people experience in using current interaction devices such as screens and keyboards. New developments in interaction will also provide the basis of new types of systems with innovative and beneficial capabilities, for example in the field of telemedicine.

A more advanced human-centred interaction with systems would provide users with a sense of being there, close to if not equivalent to the experience of actual presence. Creating this sense of presence remains a major challenge and has led to the development of new interdisciplinary research, combining cognitive and haptic (sense of touch) perception with multimedia design and advanced communications. This research is directed at developing a better understanding of how a real sense of presence can be achieved. It involves learning and discovering what is going on when people use their senses to understand and interpret their surrounding environment and when they interact with objects in that environment.

Main Issues

The main issue is establishing what sensory input iss needed for someone to feel as if they were present in an environment. There are a number of different aspects of Presence - sense of touch, vision and sound.

Researchers have discovered what sensory touch information iss important in identifying objects such as lumps in medical diagnostic situations. Early results indicate that there is a kind of touch language learnt by surgeons that represents embodied knowledge. This is knowledge that is not represented in symbolic form but which is acquired by people through experience and which links patterns of touch with interpretations. This knowledge relies upon different types of sensory input - visual, auditory, olfactory, taste, haptics, or the integration of part or all of these.

Vision and the perception of colour are important in perception. Although colour is in peoples' heads and is a product of the senses and brain, and hence is seen differently by people, it does nevertheless represent real physical properties. Fundamental to creating a better representation of colour is to understand the physical effects and to model these correctly. At the micro level surface characteristics are important and these need to be incorporated into models. Context is also important as the colour seen by an observer depends on previously seen colours as well as surrounding colours.

Creating pictures that are perceived by viewers as real, is a challenging area. Few people regarded television pictures as real. It is however possible to design and construct cameras and viewing systems where people perceive the image as real. Such designs are based on understandings of vision and how the eye and brain operate, understandings which show that current technologies such as television cameras have been designed based on the wrong assumptions.

Another area important to Perception is hearing and the perception of sound. The current generation of (traditional) loudspeakers used in many devices (hi-fi, radio etc.) has limitations. These are designed based on frequency response and ignore the spatial and time dimensions of sound. Any sound-producing object generates sound in three dimensions and this noise resonates with the surrounding environment to create the sound that people hear. Traditional loudspeakers produce sound that is unidirectional and they provide poor reproduction of sounds such as church bells and pianos. New designs for loudspeakers, that more faithfully reproduce such sounds, are now available. These new designs provide multidirectional capabilities and thus create resonance with surrounding objects.

Sound models for objects producing sounds are an area where research is being undertaken. The focus is on discovering how sound models could enhance a sense of presence. One of the main conclusion of this work is that understanding the physics is important for realistic synthesis of a sound but even more important for abstracting and generalising the sound of an object. The concept of sound cartoons, similar in notion to children's visual cartoons, which do not provide a fully realistic reproduction, has been proposed. Presence is not necessarily realism, but fidelity in interaction. The message is that sound cartoons are relatively inexpensive to produce and could compensate for deficiencies of visual displays and haptic devices.

The need for the new research field of Presence is considered to be important. There are a number of application areas where a good sense of presence is needed. The first of these is telemedicine, were doctors and surgeons are undertaking diagnostics and performing operations at a distance from the patient. The second is presentation of scientific results where improved pictures could provide better communication to the audience. The third is military. In some battlefield situations the limitations of present devices means that it is still necessary to risk human life by sending in soldiers to collect information. Improvements in sensors and displays to provide a realistic presence would help to reduce the need to use people to collect information in dangerous situations. Improvement of archives is also an important potential application. The research is valuable in its own right as it will lead to a better understanding of humans and animals and their interactions with the environment.

A better technology could provide systems that resonate with the way that people think and operate in the real world. To achieve this state however it is necessary to understand more about the signals from the environment that people use to form judgements and to decide upon situations. It is clear at the moment that this information is missing and a better fit between people and computer systems can only be achieved from developing this sort of understanding.

The availability of the next generation Presence technologies depends on the development of basic understandings. Improved systems could be built with today's off-the-shelf components and technologies. The real problem is deciding upon the design parameters, and this was why basic research into Presence was needed so that a better understanding could be achieved. And there is also a long-term need to store as much information as possible. Current systems might not be able to use such information but the capabilities of future generations of technologies are unknown and they might be able to use this information and could only do so if it was captured and stored. Image storage should not be constrained and determined by the requirements of our current technologies. There is a need to store more information than the human eye can actually see. The old idea of less is better because it is cheaper is no longer valid.

Conclusions and Future Directions

Improvements in understanding of basic aspects of the way human senses work and how they provide meaningful information will ultimately help with the creation of more natural means of interacting with systems. Thus, research in the field of Presence is not just about abstract study, but potentially an important enabler of an inclusive Information Society, providing a means of access suitable for all. These understandings are also expected to lead to information systems innovation, proving new devices and services for European society and its peoples.

Research into Presence is still at an early stage however. Much more needs to be done to understand the different aspects of the senses involved - such as vision, hearing, and touch. Early results indicate that there are deficiencies in current models and theories and in some cases our current technologies have been designed based on the wrong assumptions. New insights into human senses and how they operate are leading to new technologies and new systems that are already enhancing the sense of being there. Many of these new system are however large and expensive and much work will need to be done in the future on cost and size reduction in order to make them more widely available.




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