Telepresence: The Extraordinary Power of Virtual Reality

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During my childhood I recurrently had nightmares. Sometimes I fell from cliffs, other times a family member passed away. Occasionally I was being chased by dogs. And everything was always so real.

But real only in my mind.

It was purely a result of my imagination, or perhaps an unconscious interpretation of my conscious fears.

My dreams felt real because my mind had projected an environment different to the one I was in.

Differentiating Presence and Telepresence

Gibson (1979) wrote a fantastic book titled “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”. In this publication the author described “Presence” as the experience that one can have through the interaction with an environment. Not referring specifically to the physical surrounding, but on how we perceive the environment. So, in short, one should be in the environment in order to perceive it and thus, be present.

However, through mediums (such as VR), one can be presented with two environments:

  • A physical environment in which one is in, and;
  • The new environment presented through the medium (a virtual environment, for example).

Thus “Telepresence” represents one’s mental projection of a fictitious environment presented through the medium. It can induce a projection of a fictitious present stage (how I could be now), a projection of a real past (How I was), a fictitious past (How I could possibly have been) or most often a projection of a possible future (How I can possibly be).

In short, telepresence refers to the feeling of “being there”. Whatever or wherever the “there” may be.

As discussed on a classic paper from Steuer (1992), there are two key determinant factors for telepresence: Vividness and Interactivity. Vividness refers to the capacity of a technology to create a sensorial mediated environment. As seen in the model below by Steuer (1992), it is also moderated by two main factors: breadth and depth of the technology.

Interactivity, on the other hand, refers to the extent to which a user can influence the form or content of the virtual environment. And these are moderated by speed, range and mapping of the technology. These three factors can be hindered by, for example, internet speed or device capabilities.

But what one must always remember is that such technologies develop exponentially. As such, moderating factors of vividness and interactivity will only improve with time and their current technical issues will quickly disappear.

Thus, with time the human experience of telepresence will only improve and become even more “real”.

Telepresence and Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology designed to immerse us into a “fictitious reality” through sensory stimulation. And currently it is certainly the most advanced way to induce telepresence. Currently the most common VR product are headsets, which often only allow the stimulation of two human senses: sight and hearing. However, there are new products being developed which can also stimulate additional senses, such as smell and even taste!

And the more human senses we stimulate through VR, the more a sense of telepresence is triggered.

Telepresence in the Music Industry

Much of the music experience comes from the feeling of being close to your favorite artists and “sharing a moment together in the same venue“. But VR can increase immensely this sensation by allowing the fan to be much closer to the artist and experience the concert in ways he/she would never be able to in the real world. Here are some examples:

Example: Paul McCartney (Extra content)

The fantastic Paul is not just a brilliant composer. He is also great in projecting his career and has been innovative in many moments. In the 360-VR video below he explains the story of his song “My Valentine”. You can feel like you are in the room with Paul and have an incredible telepresence experience. For fans of Paul, like myself, it is extraordinary.

Example: Björk (Music Video)

Björk has always been a super creative artist. In 2015, while launching her album “Vulnicura” she released a 360-VR video of the song “Stonemilker”, which allowed fans to be with her alone on a deserted location.

Telepresence in Tourism Marketing

Tourism is a context in which telepresence is extremely important due to one its main characteristics: In tourism there is a great time and geographical gap between purchase and consumption.

Buyers are normally geographically far from the destination and services he/she may book. Also the decision involves a number of possible risks: physical, financial and social risks, for example.

And this is why telepresence through VR is highly important. Consumers can project themselves in hotels, destinations, consuming specific products and services, and experiencing a new reality. And as consequence, make much more suitable choices.

Example: Thomas Cook

One great example is Thomas Cook, one of the most successful travel agencies in the world. The have started a campaign named “try before you buy”, in which VR is used for travelers to have a pre-trip experience and be more certain of their decisions, minimizing possible risks.

As Marc Ryan (Thomas Cook Group Chief Innovation Officer) explains, the immersion and telepresence allowed by VR has had a deep impact on consumers. They feel more confident in making decisions and have a more positive in-store experience.

Other Uses of Telepresence through VR

(I am sure you well aware of VR use in gaming, so I will skip this discussion). What I would like to discuss is how telepresence can also be a powerful tool for “positive distraction”. For example, when we are experiencing physical or mental discomfort. Here are some examples:

Telepresence can also be used to improve productivity by facilitative visualization. Here are two cases:

  • Surgery
  • Education
    • During the educational process students often use their imagination to understand concepts. These may include, for example, imagining ancient Greece during history classes or blood circulation systems in biology lectures. An accurate telepresence can facilitate immensely the learning process if in both examples the students can “actually visualize” the concept that is being discussed. For this reason, VR in education has been used for example:


Final Thoughts

Virtual reality is truly a powerful toll that is still at an infant stage, if we consider its full potential. There is still a long road until it is fully adopted by society and that we can make vast use of telepresence. Personally, I believe soon other human senses will also be triggered by VR and our virtual immersion will be much deeper.

When this happens many other sectors might be deeply impacted. For example:

  • Museums: If we are able to virtually visit ancient Greece, will there be a desire to visit museums and see tangible objects from the time? Will one experience complement the other?
  • Universities: If renowned universities, such as Harvard, Oxford or Yale, start streaming lectures through VR, will students around the world prefer to have a degree from watching lectures through VR? Or will they prefer physically attending other universities with perhaps less prestige?
  • Sports broadcasting: If a fan is able to watch an F1 race from his VR headset and a camera positioned inside the driver’s helmet, will fans have the desire to attend the event and sit on a grandstand for hours under the rain? Will football fans prefer to squeeze on the stands with other fans or will they prefer watching virtually through the sidelines?
  • Tourism: Consider destinations that involve physical risk but have great tourist attractions (e.g. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or Delhi, India). In these cases, will senior tourists prefer to have a VR experience or physically visit a destination?

There are still so many other examples in the air I could have added… 

As with every new technology, VR can be both exclusive and inclusive. Disruptive and constructive. In the end it will depend on how each industry will adapt to it.

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