JavaScript is turned off in your web browser. Turn it on to take full advantage of this site, then refresh the page. Seminarier | Informatik, Umeå universitet
Tid: Wednesday 2004-04-21, 13:15-15:00
Plats: MIT-huset, MC 413

John Waterworth, Informatik: The Three Layers of Presence: Making Sense of the Sense of Presence, in the World and in Media

Extended Abstract

Progress in understanding presence has been inhibited by the fact that many investigators are unable to agree what it is they are talking about. What one researcher means by presence is not the same as what another means, and from this stems confusion about how to evaluate models of presence, how to measure it, and how it relates to other psychological phenomena such as mental imagery, attention and emotional engagement. If presence is a phenomenon worthy of investigation, it has at least to be characterised in a way that differentiates it from other phenomena already under long-term investigation. And this characterisation should lead to ways of measurement that can, in the best case, cleanly discriminate between changes in presence and changes in other phenomena. Over the two decades of increasingly active research into electronically-mediated presence, several definitions of what characterises presence have been put forward. I suggest that, of these, there is one that meets the needs of future progress in the field: electronically mediated presence is the perceptual illusion of being in an external, physical environment. This definition of mediated presence is compatible with an evolutionary account of the psycho-neurology underlying the sense of presence in physical environments. This account highlights three component layers: proto presence, core presence, and extended presence, closely related to Damasio’s (1999) three stages of consciousness.

By this account, presence, in its earliest evolutionary form, was the feeling (proto consciousness) that something was happening outside the organism in the here and now, something that could affect the organism, as opposed to being part of the organism. Initially, this may have been based in the sensation of something currently acting at the organism’s boundary with the environment and not within it (Humphrey, 1992). Later on in evolutionary (and neurological) terms, sensation leads to perception, and presence emerged as the feeling (core consciousness) of being in an external, perceptible world in which things happen in relation to the organism’s body. Later still, internal modelling (extended consciousness) allowed attention to be directed towards non-present, imagined worlds, experienced as being inside the organism (specifically, in the head: Velmans, 2000). To be useful in assessing possible scenarios, these imagined events evoke similar emotional responses as external events would, but not the same feeling of presence. Once we could imagine situations and events, it became highly advantageous to discriminate imagined, internal, hypothetical worlds from currently perceived events in the physical, external world – a discrimination that I suggest is based in the sense of presence .

The layers of presence thus emerged through evolution, and all contribute to common survival goals, by distinguishing what currently lies outside the organism from that which is within, and ensuring that attention is directed towards significant external events, both threats and opportunities, thereby increasing the chances of survival. By this evolutionary view, presence does not discriminate between the real and the virtual as some suggest, but between the internal and the external, between things happening within the organism and things happening to the organism.

Through history, different media have generally address only some layers of consciousness. The technological trend is to address all three layers to some extent – as in immersive virtual environments. This is a relatively recent development, as we are only beginning to be able to meet the technological demands for experiencing the lowest level of presence (depending on bodily sensations and proprioception) through media. It is relatively easy, from a technological point of view, to engage extended consciousness through media, since it is concerned with the content of worlds rather than the form. Spoken words, or written text are sufficient. At the level of core consciousness, vividly perceptible stimuli are called for, a blend of form and content, as in today’s widescreen, surround-sound cinema presentations. But, only recent information technology is able to convince the body, through proto consciousness, that it really is situated in a portrayed, three-dimensional world. The formal, technological demands are extremely high. Addressing all layers does not ensure a high level of experienced presence, however; the layers may reinforce or oppose each other. Our model suggests that the degree of mediated presence depends on how well the three layers are integrated in media, how focused they are on the same information (Riva and Waterworth, 2003; Waterworth and Waterworth, 2001).

This three layer model of presence allows us to explain and predict the effect of different types of media on the level of experienced presence, and I interpret this in terms of varying psychological states that may arise in both physical and virtual environments, specifically: absence, presence, and hyperpresence. Absence arises when consciousness is mostly concerned with the internal, with information that is not currently present in the surrounding environment. Normal, “everyday” levels of presence arise when one is conscious of the present environment, but one also retains some self consciousness. Hyperpresence only occurs when all three layers of presence have the same focus, when consciousness transcends the self, and observer and observer become experientially one. I further suggest three ways in which mediated hyperpresence may be realised, specifically: digital participation, mediated flow, and embodied immersion. Some examples will be provided.


Damasio, A (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace and Co, Inc.

Humphrey, N (1992). A History of the Mind. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Jaynes J (1976, 1990). The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Riva, G and Waterworth, J A (2003). Presence and the Self: a cognitive neuroscience approach. Presence-Connect, 3 (3), posted 07-04-2003.

Velmans, M (2000). Understanding Consciousness. London: Routledge.

Waterworth, E L, & Waterworth, J A (2001). Focus, Locus, and Sensus: The three dimensions of virtual experience. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 4(2), 203-213.

Daniel Skog


Sidansvarig: Torbjörn Nordström