THE CYBORG'S DILEMNA PROGRESSIVE EMBODIMENT
IN VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS by Frank Biocca
The Cyborg's Dilemma: Progressive Embodiment in
Virtual Environments [1
Media Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Lab
Michigan State University
Table of Contents
The intrinsic relationship that arises between
tools and organs, and one that is to be revealed and emphasized – although
it is more one of unconscious discovery than of conscious invention – is
that in the tool the human continually produces itself. Since the organ
whose utility and power is to be increased is the controlling factor, the
appropriate form of a tool can be derived only from that organ.
Ernst Kapp, 1877, quoted in [Mitcham, 1994, p. 23]
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How does the changing representation of the body in
virtual environments affect the mind? This article considers how virtual
reality interfaces are evolving to embody the user progressively. The effect
of embodiment on the sensation of physical presence, social presence, and self
presence in virtual environments is discussed. The effect of avatar
representation on body image and body schema distortion is also considered.
The paper ends with the introduction of the cyborg's dilemma, a paradoxical
situation in which the development of increasingly "natural" and embodied
interfaces leads to "unnatural" adaptations or changes in the user. In the
progressively tighter coupling of user to interface, the user evolves as a
Minding the Body, the Primordial Communication Medium
twentieth century we have made a successful transition from the sooty iron
surfaces of the industrial revolution to the liquid smooth surfaces of
computer graphics. On our computer monitors we may be just beginning to see a
reflective surface that looks increasingly like a mirror. In the virtual world
that exists on the other side of the mirror's surface we can just barely make
out the form of a body that looks like us, like another self. Like Narcissus
looking into the pond, we are captured by the experience of this reflection of
our bodies. But that reflected body looks increasingly like a cyborg.
This article explores an interesting pattern in media interface development
that I will call progressive embodiment. Each progressive step in the
development of sensor and display technology moves telecommunication
technology towards a tighter coupling of the body to the interface. The body
is becoming present in both physical space and cyberspace. The interface is
adapting to the body; the body is adapting to the interface [(Biocca & Rolland, in press)].
Why is this occurring? One argument is that attempts to optimize the
communication bandwidth of distributed, multi-user virtual environments such
as social VRML worlds and collaborative virtual environments drives this
steady augmentation of the body and the mind [(see Biocca, 1995)]. It has become a key to future stages of
interface development. On the other hand, progressive embodiment may be part
of a larger pattern, the cultural evolution of humans and communication
artifacts towards a mutual integration and greater "somatic flexibility" [(Bateson, 1972)].
The pattern of progressive embodiment raises some fundamental and
interesting questions. In this article we pause to consider these
developments. New media like distributed immersive virtual environments
sometimes force us to take a closer look at what is fundamental about
communication. Inevitably, theorists interested in the fundamentals of
communication return in some way or another to a discussion of the body and
the mind. At the birth of new media, theories dwell on human factors in
communication [(Biocca, 1995)] and are often more psychological than
sociological. For example when radio and film appeared, [Arnheim (1957)] and [Munsterberg (1916)] used the perceptual theories of Gestalt
psychology to try to make sense of how each medium affected the senses. In the
1960s McLuhan [(1966; McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988)] refocused our attention on media
technology when he assembled a controversial psychological theory to examine
electronic media and make pronouncements about the consequences of imbalances
in the "sensorium."
Before paper, wires, and silicon, the primordial communication medium is
the body. At the center of all communication rests the body, the fleshy
gateway to the mind. [Becker & Schoenbach (1989)] argue that "a veritable 'new
mass medium' for some experts, has to address new senses of new combinations
of senses. It has to use new channels of information" (p. 5). In other words,
each new medium must somehow engage the body in a new way. But this leads us
to ask, are all the media collectively addressing the body in some systematic
way? Are media progressively embodying the user?
1.1 The senses as channels to the mind
"Each of us lives within ... the prison of his own brain. Projecting from
it are millions of fragile sensory nerve fibers, in groups uniquely adapted to
sample the energetic states of the world around us: heat, light, force, and
chemical composition. That is all we ever know of it directly; all else is
logical inference (1975, p. 131) [(see Sekuler & Blake, 1994 p. 2)].
The senses are the portals to the mind. Sekuler and Blake extend their
observation to claim that the senses are "communication channels to reality."
Consider for a moment the body as an information acquisition system. As aliens
from some distant planet we observe humans and see the body as an array of
sensors propelled through space to scan, rub, and grab the environment. In
some ways, that is how virtual reality designers see users [(Durlach & Mavor, 1994)]. Many immersive virtual reality
designers tend to be implicitly or explicitly Gibsonian: they accept the
perspective of the noted perceptual psychologist [J.J. Gibson (1966, 1979)]. Immersive virtual environments are places where vision
and the other senses are meant to be active. Users make use of the affordances
in the environments from which they perceive the structure of the virtual
world in ways similar to the manner they construct the physical world. Through
motion and collisions with objects the senses pick up invariances in energy
fields flowing over the body's receptors. When we walk or reach for an object
in the virtual or physical world, we guide the senses in this exploration of
the space in same way that a blind man stretches out a white cane to explore
the space while in motion. What we know about the world is embodied, it is
constructed from patterns of energy detected by the body. The body is the
surface on which all energy fields impinge, on which communication and
telecommunication takes form.
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1.2 The body as a display device for a mind
The body is integrated with the mind as a representational system, or as
the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, puts it, "a most curious physiological
arrangement ... has turned the brain into the body's captive audience" [(Damasio, 1994, p. xv)]. In some ways, the body is a
primordial display device, a kind of internal mental simulator. The body is a
representational medium for the mind. Some would claim that thought is
embodied or modeled by the body. Johnson and Lakoff [(Johnson, 1987;
Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff, 1987)] argue against a view of reasoning as
manipulation of prepositional representations (the "objectives position"), a
tabulation and manipulation of abstract symbols. They might suggest a kind of
sensory-based "image schemata" that are critical to instantiating mental
transformations associated with metaphor and analogy. In a way virtual
environments are objectified metaphors and analogies delivered as sensory
patterns instantiating "image schemata."
In his book, Decartes' Error, the neuroscientist Damasio explains
how the body is used as a means of embodying thought:
"...the body as represented in the brain, may constitute the
indispensable frame of reference for the neural processes that we experience
as the mind; that our very organism rather than some absolute experiential
reality is used as the ground of reference for the constructions we make of
the world around us and for the construction of the ever-present sense of
subjectivity that is part and parcel of our experiences; that our most
refined thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and deepest sorrows,
use the body as a yardstick" [(Damasio, 1994, p. xvi)].
Descartes' Error, warns against the misleading tendency to think of the
body and mind, reason and emotion, as separate systems.
. Range of possible input (sensors) and output
(effectors) devices for a virtual reality system. Illustrates the pattern of
progressive embodiment in virtual reality systems. Source: Biocca &
1.3 The body as a communication device
The body is also an expressive communication device [(Benthall & Polhemus, 1975)], a social semiotic vehicle
for representing mental states (e.g., emotions, observations, plans, etc.) to
others. The body emits information to the senses of other bodies, whether
intentional or not [(Ekman, 1974)]. Observers of the physical or mediated body
read emotional states, intentions, and personality traits by an empathic
simulation of them [(Zillman, 1991)]. The body transmits information to other
bodies through a kind of affective contagion.
Thinking of the body as an information channel, a display device, or a
communication device, we emerge with the metaphor of the body as a kind of
simulator for the mind. But as in a simulator, the software and the hardware
cannot be cleanly separated; they both contribute to the fidelity of the
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Embodiment: The Teleology of Interface Design
If the body is the fundamental communication hardware, a simulator for
a mind, what is its relationship to media made of steel, plastic, or silicon?
Instead of pulsing blood, pulses of electrons and light animate these media.
McLuhan long ago pointed out that modern communication interfaces attach
themselves to the body. In the words of McLuhan, "media are extensions of the
The relationship of a human to an interface can be one of a body to an
environment, or of one brain to another through a kind of conversation.
McLuhan's vision of media environments is a slightly different vision than the
one advanced by [Licklider (1960)] in his famous article on "man-computer
symbiosis." For him, "man-computer symbiosis" is a subclass of "man-machine
systems." The computer was not to be treated like other machines because it
was "intelligent." This intelligent partner could be engaged in a kind of
conversation. The disembodied human brain would be coupled to a machine brain
rather than to cognitive environments:
The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and
computing machines will be coupled very tightly, and that the resulting
partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data
in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today
[(Licklider, 1960, p. 4)].
In a view of the
computer as giant brain, widely shared in the 40s and 50s, we see another
version of Descartes' error. This coupling was of one brain to another. The
communication between human and machine was one of conversation. The
conversation was with a large disemboded electronic brain, seen either as a
peer, slave, or competitor. Instead of a mind communicating through a body to
another body, we have only two disembodied conversations, a sterile coupling
of abstract symbol generators. It is the symbol manipulating vision of early
artificial intelligence, rather than the situated embodiment of intelligence
augmentation [(Biocca, 1995)]. At the close of this century, the development
of advanced computer interfaces appears to be increasingly characterized by
what we might call progressive embodiment. Progressive embodiment is defined
as the steadily advancing immersion of sensorimotor channels to computer
interfaces through a tighter and more pervasive coupling of the body to
interface sensors and displays.
This pattern of progressive embodiment is most evident in the discourse,
research, and development of advanced immersive virtual reality, augmented
reality systems, and wearable computers [(Biocca & Delaney, 1995; Durlach & Mavor, 1994)]. Writings growing out of early
conferences on virtual reality and cyberspace enthusiastically welcomed the
coupling of the body to virtual reality interfaces:
The trajectory of Western thought has been one moving from the
concrete to the abstract, from the body to the mind; recent thought,
however, has been pressing upon us the frailty of that Cartesian
distinction. The mind is the property of the body, and lives and dies with
it. Everywhere we turn we see signs of the recognition, and cyberspace, in
its literal placement of the body in spaces invented by the mind, is located
directly upon the blurring of this boundary, this fault [(Novak, 1991, p. 227)].
Evidence that virtual
reality was creating a tighter integration of sensors and displays with the
body gave rise to this kind of pronouncement. Figure 1 displays the range of virtual reality devices and
their connection to sensory channels or the motor and autonomic channels. The
evolution of these devices is the evolution of the progressive coupling of
sensors and display devices to the body. The vision of such a system foresees
some applications where the body of the user is to be completely immersed in
the interface, and the mind is set floating in the telecommunication system –
in cyberspace. Like a body entering a sink, a bath, or a pool, communication
demands and contexts will determine how much the body needs to be immersed in
the electric-cool waters of cyberspace.
There is a teleology to human-machine symbiosis. Advanced communication
interfaces are designed to assist users in those times when total embodiment
is desired for information intensive communication (e.g., sensorimotor
training in flight, battle, sports, etc.; certain forms of entertainment where
simulations of the past places, telepresence to existing places, and the
subjective experience of others is critical). Total immersion is the goal.
There has been some temporary retreat from the aggressive pursuit of this
vision because of the immaturity of the display and sensing devices. Early
attempts to immerse the body in these immature technologies have led to
imperfect mapping of the body to the interface. Physiological reactions of the
body to this imperfect mapping have taken the form of simulation sickness [(Biocca, 1992); (Kennedy et al., 1992)] and visuomotor adaptation [(Biocca & Rolland, in press)].
Virtual reality is an immature technology. But simulation technologies are
developing rapidly. Figure 2 shows the classes of variables that are critical to
the continued refinement of virtual environments and progressive embodiment.
Looking only at the evolution of the hardware and operation systems of virtual
reality interfaces, we can characterize the design of progressive embodiment
by developments in the following classes of variables:
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Clearly the senses are connected to the
interface. But how? How should we define this aspect of embodiment? Past
theorists of virtual environments have attempted to define the degree to which
the senses are connected to the displays of the interface. Upon analysis most
of these definitions prove to be flawed. For example, Sheridan [(1992)] states that physical presence (defined below) may be
related to the "amount of sensory information" in the interface. On the
surface this seems acceptable. But this definition suggests using
"information" as the unit of measurement. How does one measure the variable
"amount of sensory information." It has been known since perceptual
experiments in the 1950s that information theory measures of "information" [(Shannon & Weaver, 1949)], especially of perceptual
information, are not usable because we are unable to predict chunking and
other structural information. One "bit" of perceptual information is not
definable in any useful way.
In another attempt to define properties of the interface [Steuer (1995)] arrays interfaces according to their amount of
"vividness." This concept is also flawed. It confuses independent and
dependent variables by defining a property of the interface, the computer, in
terms of the effect of this property on the user. As a result it is difficult
I will use the term, sensory engagement, to define the degree to which the
senses are engaged or connected to the interface. The amount of sensory
engagement is defined and measurable using the following dimensions:
2.1.1 Number of sensory channels engaged by the virtual
Not all senses are channels for information for virtual
environments. For example, the nasal and oral senses tend to be underutlized,
and coverage of the haptic and tactile senses is highly limited [(see Biocca & Delaney, 1995; Durlach & Mavor, 1995)]. Media have not evolved that far.
So in some ways, we are partially disembodied when interacting with most
media. Interfaces can easily be classified as to the number of sensory
channels they address.
There is also a trend towards increasing the number of sensory channels
that are connected to the interface. In this century displays for the visual
and aural senses have been steadily perfected. For example, the silent film
evolved another display channel and became the "talkie." In the last twenty
five years sophisticated tactile and proprioceptive devices have been
incorporated into some simulators, and in the last few years nasal displays
are beginning to evolve from the crude aroma releasers of a few decades ago to
more sophisticated devices [(Krueger, 1997)]. In the process of progressive embodiment,
more of the senses are entering cyberspace. If we look at the trajectory of
interface development, it is fair to say that at some point all the senses may
be connected to cyberspace for certain intensely sensory experiences.
2.1.2. Increasing sensory fidelity of displays and range of sensory cues
within each sensory channel
Our knowledge of the senses is being
directly applied to the design of increased fidelity (e.g., [(Biocca & Delaney, 1995; Durlach & Mavor, 1994)]. So for each sensory channel we
can theoretically define the level of sensory fidelity for that channel.
Sensory fidelity can be defined in terms of the pattern of energy impinging on
the senses. Sensory fidelity is the degree to which the energy array produced
by a mediated display matches the energy array of an unmediated stimulus. The
quantification and measurement of the increasing match of the mediated display
to an unmediated stimulus is easier for some sensory channels (i.e., the
visual), than for others (i.e., olfactory). Good examples of commonly used
measures in the visual channel are resolution and color fidelity, two
quantifiable properties of array of light on a visual display.
Over time virtual environment designers hope that display devices will
approach and exceed the full sensory capabilities of each sensory channel. At
the moment, even the most advanced displays, those for the visual channel, for
example, fall short of the full capabilities of human vision [(Durlach & Mavor, 1995; Kocian & Task, 1995)].
2.1.3. Increased saturation of the sensory channels engaged by the
virtual environment and suppression of sensory channels not engaged
an effort to fully embody the user in the virtual environment, the capacity of
those senses engaged by the system must be immersed in the representation of
the virtual world.
Level of sensory saturation is defined as the percentage
of the sensory channel occupied by stimuli (information) from the virtual as
opposed to the physical environment.For example, when a user
looks at a typical monitor only a fraction of the visual field is occupied by
stimuli from the virtual environment. But monitors are becoming progressively
larger, and VR head mounted displays are moving to larger fields-of-view. The
ambition is to saturate the field-of-view of the user with the virtual
environment. A similar pattern of progressive saturation is found in other
sensory display systems. The bandwidth of each sensory channel is being
steadily taken up by stimuli from the virtual world.
When users use media it is often done in a setting that suppresses stimuli
from the physical environment. We can call this phenomenon sensory
suppression of the immediate environment.
Sensory suppression of the immediate environment is
caused by features of the interface or the user's environment that dampen,
eliminate, or minimize the impact of stimuli on the sensory channels not
engaged by the interface or by the part of a sensory channel not saturated
by the interface. A good example of sensory suppression is the
environment of the typical movie theater:
The interface, the
environment, and social rules during interface use are all designed to immerse
the users' senses in the virtual environment of the movie screen.
Communication flows to parts of sensory bandwidth not immersed in cyberspace
are suppressed and decreased.
- The mediated environment, the movie screen, especially in IMAX theaters,
saturates the visual channel (i.e., field of view) of the user so little of
the immediate environment, the theater, is visible.
- Dimming the lights makes the screen (the mediated environment) dominant,
and suppresses visual information from the parts of the physical environment
that are not displaying mediated information (i.e., the people seated beside
you, the curtains on the walls, etc.).
- Sound volume and social rules about making noise suppress sound from the
ambient physical environment.
- Soft comfortable seats and temperature controls suppress awareness of
the haptic and proprioceptive channels.
2.2 Motor engagement
The body's movement and activity is
increasingly part of the interface [(Biocca & Delaney, 1995; Durlach & Mavor, 1995)]. It can be argued that
historically the body enters cyberspace with the creation of the humble mouse
[(Bardini, 1997)]. Why not use the keyboard someone might ask?
The keyboard was primarily a symbolic input device for textual "conversation"
with the computer. The keyboard did not map the movement of the body in space
to cyberspace. So it was conversational input, not a somatic input. Over time
more of the body's morphology and motion are being captured by the position
trackers, motion capture systems, and other sensors, vivid 3D representation
of the user, direct manipulation, and machine analysis of user intention (task
2.2.1. Number of motor channels engaged by the virtual environment
Progressive embodiment can be seen in the number of interface sensors that
map the motion of the body including joysticks, head trackers, eye trackers,
facial motion systems, etc.
2.2.2. Resolution of body sensors
Sensors, like displays, are
capturing finer and finer resolutions of body motion and physiological
activity, e.g. fine finger movement, lip movement, etc.
2.3 Sensorimotor Coordination
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One of the most important factors
in immersing the user's body into the interface is sensorimotor coordination.
It is the essence of feedback, especially the kind of feedback we experience
in our interaction with the physical environment. Sensorimotor coordination is
defined as the degree to which changes in body position correlate immediately
and naturally with appropriate changes in sensory feedback. The presence of
lag in immersive virtual reality systems between motor movement and sensory
feedback is a significant source of simulation sickness and decrements in
human performance [(Held & Durlach, 1991)].
Embodiment: Thinking Through our Technologically Extended Bodies
. The users are progressively embodied in virtual
environment interfaces through evolving technologies of sensory engagement,
motor engagement, and sensorimotor coordination.
The process of progressive embodiment is occurring at a time when there is
increasing social integration of the interface. Social integration means that
the interface is being integrated into everyday activity at work, home, and on
the street. Increased social integration of the sensorimotor interface into
everyday communication is giving rise to longer and more contextually varied
access to cyberspace. The interface enters the social sphere via easier
coupling with the body through miniaturization, portability, and wearability.
In most virtual environments systems, but especially in immersive virtual
reality systems, progressive embodiment of the user inside the interface
presents significant design challenges.
3.1 Designing a space for bodily action
How do we create the
illusion of a stable and coherent spatial environment with at least most of
the sensory properties of the physical world (i.e., visual space, auditory
space, tactile resistance and pressure, smell and appropriate free floating
3.2 Design of other intelligent beings
The space the body enters
cannot be a ghost town, as many early VR worlds were in the early 1990s. So
the challenge is to create the perception of other intelligent beings. These
issues are normally found under the discussion of the design of agents and
avatars, and of virtual humans.
The most pressing design issues are:
- The design of body morphology.
Here the concern regarding embodiment focuses on the design of the
shape of represented beings, especially the engineering of their motion
- Expressiveness of the body.
Here the debate over embodiment dwells on the capability of the
represented being to communicate the full range of human and non-human
expression. Concern often focuses on the engineering of an expressive face
from the 3D geometry of avatars and agents.
- Perceived intelligence via bodily action and expression.
The only evidence we have of another being's intelligence is the
motion, motor behavior, and symbolic behavior of that being. By directly
controlling the motion and behavior of an avatar, a human operator
provides the intelligence in real time. Barring the expressive and
kinematic inadequacies of avatar embodiment, the intelligence of human
embodiment is perceived quickly. The challenge – best expressed by Turing,
but evident in the work of previous designers of automata – is to have an
agent that somehow possesses or creates the illusion of intelligence.
The ambiguity of intelligence can be a source of pleasure and not
necessarily a flaw in virtual environments. As Randy Walser pointed out early
in the design of VR environments [(Walser, 1991)], part of the pleasure in VR narrative
environments might come from not quite knowing when a dynamic form is either
an object, an avatar, or an agent. The challenge to the user's expectations
about the correlation of morphology with intelligence might be a source of
great art in virtual environments.
Clearly animation can communicate all of the above to a satisfactory– if
not ideal – degree. Didn't Disney already do this? Have we not achieved the
illusion? The real challenge is not achieving these goals under controlled
point of views and interactivity such as that of a third-person voyeur (i.e.,
as in the way film and animation present us with intelligent behaviors). Nor
is it experiencing second-person interaction in the way some video games allow
the user to experience the interaction of a puppet with other apparently
intelligent i.e., intentional, puppets. The challenge is giving the user full
first-person interaction with other intelligent beings animated by a complex
3.3 Design of the represented body
The represented body is
referred to as the avatar of the user. In immersive virtual reality systems
the avatar is not the small puppet used in standard computer interfaces, those
regular computer monitors on which an iconic representation of the self is
moved in a world via a mouse or joystick. In immersive VR the whole interface
defines the boundaries and shape of the body by defining the boundary between
inside and outside, between the part of the VR world that is "me" and the part
that is "the world" (see [Loomis, 1992)]. Both, of course, are just perceptual illusions
generated on a head-mounted display (HMD). For example, users wearing a
head-mounted display look down and readily accept the floating virtual hand of
the immersive VR systems as their own. A part of the continuum of light in the
HMD, a visual illusion, is given the distal attribution of "me" and the rest
"other." From coherent patterns of energy impinging on the senses (i.e., the
proximal stimulus) the virtual world is divided into "self" and "environment".
In immersive VR, more so than in any other medium before it, the
representation of the user's body is a psychologically profound issue. This is
especially true when the systems map the user's body directly to the first
person experience of a full virtual body, as virtual body that provides
feedback about the location of limbs and head in space. As I will discuss
later, the design of this virtual body may be the source of a number of
current psychological problems in coupling of the body to immersive VR
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User Embodiment and Three Forms in Which the Body "Feels" Present in the
Embodiment plays an important role in the design of virtual
environments, especially collaborative virtual environments (e.g., [(Benford, et al., 1995)]. In immersive virtual environments the
environment surrounds the body, often engulfing the senses, and, therefore,
the mind. We sometimes speak of sound environments, architectural
environments, natural environments, etc. All suggest fields of stimuli that
somehow engulf one or more of the senses.
Embodiment of the user is a critical dimension of the program for
intelligence augmentation that motivates the advancement of virtual reality
systems [(Biocca, 1995)]. The phrase intelligence augmentation describes
the design theory that communication technologies can be cognitive prostheses
amplifying or assisting cognitive processes or by developing cognitive skills.
This postulate has a long history in telecommunication and human-computer
interface design. In one form of another it is an implicit or explicitly goal
in the work of [Vannevar Bush (1945), Douglas Englebart (1962), Douglas Licklider (1960; Licklider & Taylor, 1968) and numerous others (see also
[Howard Rheingold, 1985)].
This leads us to ask of ourselves and the VR design community, if
embodiment contributes to intelligence augmentation what does it mean to be
embodied? In other words, what are the psychological effects of goals of
embodiment in virtual environments? Most commonly the psychological effects or
goals of progressive embodiment can be expressed as various forms of what is
Presence: Emergence of a Design Goal and Theoretical Problem
5.1 Telepresence: Origins of the design of presence
5.1.1. Emergence of the design goal and theoretical problem of
The concept of presence is central to theorizing about
advanced virtual environments such as immersive virtual reality [(Barfield et al., 1995; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Sheridan, 1992; Steuer, 1995)]. For example, a leading VR journal out of MIT
enshrines the psychological goal of presence rather than the technology of
virtual reality by calling itself Presence.
In its more general use the term presence has referred to a widely reported
sensation experienced during the use of virtual reality specifically, but also
found during the use of other media. Users experiencing presence report having
a compelling sense of being in a mediated space other than where their
physical body is located (e.g., [Slater & Usoh, 1993)]. Because we automatically construct
models of the space around us [(Bryant, 1992)] more sophisticated analyses have suggested
that we simply think of presence as a form of perceptual externalization or
distal attribution. When media are involved the space constructed from the
energy impinging on the sense is generated from mediated stimuli rather than
unmediated stimuli [(Loomis, 1992)].
The Random House American Heritage Dictionary definition of presence
refers to a "spirit inside a body" or to "immediate proximity in time and
space." In telepresence, this sense of "immediate proximity" is no longer
immediate environment and source of sensation, but "transported" using
technology to a location that is not in the same place as the physical body.
Presence is sometimes called telepresence to emphasize the use of
communication media for transportation. In its original formulation in the
NASA and robotics community, telepresence meant the illusion of being
transported via telecommunication systems to a real, physical location
experienced synchronously [(e.g., Minsky, 1980)]. The user's body was linked via an interface to
sensors on a robot. Telepresence has since been generalized to a sense of
transportation to any "space" created by media [(e.g., Steuer, 1995)]. The shorter and more common term, presence,
has been generalized to the illusion of " being there" whether or not "there"
exists in physical space or not. This generalization of the term allowed
theorists of presence to include the fantasy environments of narrative and
game designers as well as the abstract iconic representations of scientific
5.1.2 The desire for physical transcendence and the control of sensory
[Biocca, Kim, & Levy (1995)] argue that goal of virtual
reality, presence, is part of an ancient desire to use media for
transportation and experience "physical transcendence" over the space we live
in and to experience an "essential copy" of some distant place, a past
experience, or the experience of another person. These basic kernel concepts
of the "physical transcendence" of the body and space, and the "essential
copy" of bodily experience are intertwined into discussions that animate the
pursuit of presence. We see a desire to use media to move beyond the limits of
body and the sensory channels. This desire for physical transcendence is
clearly visible in the work of one of the most revered pioneers in computer
graphics and VR, Ivan Sutherland:
A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to
gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a
looking glass into a mathematical wonderland.... There is no reason why the
objects displayed by a computer have to follow the ordinary rules of
physical reality... The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within
which the computer can control the existence of matter [(Sutherland, 1965, p. 506, 508)].
Presence as transportation of senses via telecommunication (i.e. tele-phone,
The engineering and computer science use of the term
telepresence, or presence, started as a telecommunication design goal and has
evolved into an intriguing theoretical problem and philosophical issue [(e.g.,
Biocca, 1996; Loomis, 1992)]. The concept can be found in the HCI literature
first as "telepresence," the illusion of being present in a distant location
[(e.g., Minsky, 1980)], but the word "presence" appears by itself at
the same time [(Corker, Mishkin, & Lyman, 1980)]. The word telepresence
meant using sensors and effects to link the body of the user via
telecommunication channels to a robotic system. The robot would move when the
user moved. Sensors, such as cameras and force detection devices, would
provide feedback to the user. The user would sense what the robot "senses." In
a phrase, the user would be remotely embodied in the robot. Telepresence is
about the telecommunication of the body, the transmission of sensory and motor
According to some of the early users of the term, the conditions for
telepresence would be met when:
At the work site, the manipulators have the dexterity to allow
the operator to perform normal human functions. At the control station, the
operator receives sufficient quantity and quality of sensory feedback to
provide a feeling of actual presence at the work site [(Akin, Minsky, Theirl
and Kurtzman (1983) quoted in Held & Durlach, 1992)].
definitions of telepresence reflect this origin. For example, the treatment of
presence by robotics pioneer [Tom Sheridan (1992)] defines telepresence as the feeling of a
teleoperator being phenomenally "there" at the remote site of operation.
126.96.36.199. Why a theory of presence has become necessary
arcane and somewhat philosophical concept of presence became more
theoretically urgent with the arrival of immersive virtual reality (See the
first volume of the journal Presence). Practical design problems made
issues of conceptualization and measurement critical [(Held & Durlach, 1992; Sheridan, 1992; Zeltzer, 1992)]. Presence was a design goal of virtual
reality. The difference between virtual reality and other media was defined as
a difference in the level of presence [(e.g., Steuer, 1995)]. It can be argued that advanced forms of
virtual reality only differ from previous media in quantity and quality of
presence. While the design of virtual reality technology has brought the
theoretical issue of presence to the fore, few theorists argue that the
experience of presence suddenly emerged with the arrival of virtual reality.
Most see the illusion of presence as a product of all media, and that virtual
reality is the medium that at this point in time can generate the most
compelling sense of presence [(Biocca & Levy, 1995; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Steuer, 1995)]. But with the arrival of virtual reality, the
creation of the sensation of presence becomes more of an explicit design goal.
5.3 Intense sensorimotor feedback from headtracking in virtual reality
made people aware of their bodies
The experience of a much higher level
of sensorimotor feedback and first person perspective generated the
head-tracked [(Meyer, Applewhite, & Biocca, 1992)] head-mounted display
that helped bring the whole issue of presence to the fore. The interactivity
resulting from the sensorimotor coordination of the moving head with visual
displays created a sensation not found with non-headcoupled media like film
and television. Users became aware of their bodies; their head
movements altered what they saw. Immersive virtual reality immediately
distinguished itself from other media when users reported a strong sense of
"being there" in the virtual environment. Early user's of VR systems where
struck by the compelling sensation that their bodies were in a different place
[(e.g., Rheingold, 1991)]. For some, the experience was powerful. They
felt they were no longer in the lab, office, or entertainment center, but
"there," inside the virtual world. It was hoped that this surprising
experience could be made more compelling.
This medium was interactive in a profoundly natural way. The world was now
all around the user's body. With advanced virtual reality technology, users
and designers sought to increase this sensation of presence, pursuit of which
has become the sine qua non goal of many immersive virtual environments, labs
and companies. The day-to-day design of presence has temporarily outstripped
the theory of the presence. In the history of science we have often seen the
design of technology outpace our understanding of the principles that make the
technology function. Designers know that presence is something their users
experience, but don't know exactly what it is. What is presence? This is one
of the important questions in VR design. Most discussions of presence thus far
[(e.g., Barfield et al., 1995; Heeter, 1992, 1995; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Steuer, 1992; Zeltzer, 1992)] can be subsumed into the following
conceptualization of three forms of presence.
[ Top ]
Being There: The Sense of Physical Presence in Cyberspace.
Clearly the sense of presence was not created just for use with virtual
environments. But as [Loomis (1992)] points out, presence is a basic state of
consciousness, it is part of the attribution of sensation to some distal
stimulus, or more casually, to some environment. A topic that has
traditionally been discussed by philosophers and perceptual psychologists as
"externalization" and "distal attribution" is now a practical matter of
virtual environment design. It has even been proposed that VR might be used to
study the classic epistemological topics of consciousness [(Biocca, 1996; Lauria, 1997)].
When we experience our everyday sense of presence in the physical world, we
automatically generate a mental model of an external space from patterns of
energy on the sensory organs. In virtual environments, patterns of energy that
simulate the structure to those experienced in the physical environment are
used to stimulate the same automatic perceptual processes that generate our
stable perception of the physical world.
As [Loomis (1992)] points out, the mediation of virtual
environments leads us to reconsider how the active body mediates our
construction of the physical world:
The perceptual world created by our senses and the nervous
system is so functional a representation of the physical world that most
people live out their lives without ever suspecting that contact with the
physical world is mediated; moreover, the functionality of perception
impedes many reflective individuals from appreciating the insights about
perception that derive from philosophical inquiry. Oddly enough, the newly
developing technology of teleoperator and virtual displays is having the
unexpected effect of promoting such insight, for the impression of being in
a remote or simulated environment experienced by the user of such systems
can be so compelling as to force a user to question the assumptions that the
physical and perceptual world are one and the same [(Loomis, 1992, p. 113)].
Note that Loomis
says that all "contact with the physical world is mediated," by which he means
the primordial communication medium, the body. The default sense of "being
there" is the basic state of consciousness in which the user attributes the
source of the sensation to the physical environment. We have been present in
this environment for so long and it is so natural, that the idea that presence
might be a psychological construct is only raised by philosophers and
perceptual psychologists. The experience of compelling virtual environments
has disturbed this common complacency. The discussion of virtual reality and
the strong sense of being there that it generates is often accompanied by
questions about the stability of our perception of the physical world [(e.g.,
Lauria, 1997)]. If the senses can be so easily fooled, then
how can we trust the day-to-day experience of physical reality? This is the
century old insight born of all illusions, especially in dreaming where we
directly experience interaction of the body and the mind as the primordial
6.1 Where are you? : Oscillations in the sense of presence
compelling sense of presence in virtual environments is unstable. At best it
is fleeting. Like a voice interrupting a daydream in the imaginal environment,
presence in the virtual environment can be interrupted by sensory cues from
the physical environment and imperfections in the interface [(Slater & Usoh, 1993; Kim & Biocca, 1997)].
At one point in time, users can be said to feel as if they are physically
present in only one of three places (see Figure 3): the physical environment,
the virtual environment, or the imaginal environment. Presence oscillates
among these three poles.
6.1.1. The physical environment (distal immediate)
are attentively constructing a mental model of the physical space [(Bryant, 1992)], responding and attending to cues in the
physical non-mediated environment as the user plans and guides engagement with
the natural world.
6.1.2. The virtual environment (distal mediated)
primarily constructing a mental model of the virtual space and responding to
and attending to cues in the virtual mediated environment. Presence in the
virtual environment can be readily engaged, but can rarely be maintained at
the same level as presence in the physical environment.
Figure 3: Users' sense of presence is not stable but
labile. They variously feel present in the physical environment, virtual
environment, or in the imaginal environment (e.g., dreaming, day dreaming).
6.1.3 The imaginal environment (minimal attention to
Dreaming and daydreaming reveal that there is another
place we can be present, the imaginary environment. We can say that the user
is present in the internally simulated, imaginal environment when the user:
- has withdrawn focal attention to incoming sensory cues,
- is attending to internally generated mental imagery,
- has diminished responsiveness to sensory cues from either the physical
environment or the virtual environment.
In dreams, and to a lesser degree in hallucinations and daydreaming, it is
apparent that the mind is capable of producing very compelling spatial
environments. In these environments, we have conscious experiences of moving
through space (e.g., running down a busy street), interacting with others
(e.g., talking with friends), and manipulating objects (e.g., throwing a
ball). Clearly in a dream state we are present in a spatial environment. But
it also clear that this environment has nothing to do with technology.
But dreams use what I call the mental simulator, the generator of mental
imagery that makes of cognitive resources used in perception [(Farah, 1984; Kosslyn, 1980)]. But unlike states of presence in virtual and
physical environments the mental spatial simulation is not based on incoming
sensory stimulation but is mostly constructed from memory. I say mostly
because there is evidence that in dream states, the mental simulation is
responding to some environmental stimuli and somewhat random stimulation from
the spinal system.
From a design viewpoint, physical presence is critical in applications that
must involve spatial cognition, the transfer of spatial models from the
virtual environment to the physical environment, or for sensory bombardment
and escape from the physical environment. Applications where physical presence
is critical include architectural walkthroughs, battle simulations,
engineering design, and some entertainment rides.
[ Top ]
Being with Another Body: Designing the Illusion of Social Presence
For many theorists, communication is essentially the connection of one
intelligence with another. In this view, communication is the experience of
another being. Even in the telecommunication model of [Shannon & Weaver (1949)], where communication is an
abstract relationship between two machines, the source and receiver of
communication are most often interpreted as one intelligent being connected to
For many face-to-face communication is an ideal that media technologies
attempt to replicate [(Palmer, 1995; Rafaeli, 1988; Schudson, 1978)]. In an elaborate book length attempt at a
taxonomy of all present and future media, [Ciampa (1989)] presents all media as vain attempts to recover
the immediacy of face-to-face communication. [Michael Heim (1993)] in his discussion of virtual reality
interfaces takes this one step further. He inserts the ideal of face-to-face
communication into the general notion of inter-face, "a mysterious,
nonmaterial point where electronic signals become information":
In ancient times, the term interface sparked awe and mystery,
The archaic Greeks spoke reverently of propsopon, or a face facing
another face. Two opposite faces make up a mutual relationship. One face
reacts to another, and the other face reacts to the other's reaction, and
the other reacts to that reaction, and so on ad infinitum. The relationship
then lives on as a third thing or state of being [(Heim, 1993, p. 77)].
The ideal of the
face-to-face interaction is the background against which comparisons are made
for all technologies that link two humans together. It is against this
background of immediate or non-mediated communication that the concept of
social presence has been discussed [(Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Rice, 1993)]. Typically, mediated communication is depicted as
mechanically convenient, sometimes appropriate, but ultimately a limited
substitute for face-to-face communication. If mediated communication is an
inadequate substitute for face-to-face communication, then to what degree does
a medium simulate the face-to-face presence of another? Or to what degree does
a user feel the social presence of another?
The institutional context for the discussion of social presence has usually
been organizational communication: communication in workgroups, business, and
other settings involving decision-making, negotiating, and work coordinating
groupings of human beings. This discussion is found most often in the context
of computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) [(e.g., Walther, 1996)]. Issues of presence, how much, how little, and
what kind are mapped to social psychological and sociological discussions of
group harmony, social hierarchy and status, interaction satisfaction,
There are two practical design problems that have always been there in the
design of media:
7.1.1. Transporting and displaying patterns of energy (e.g., light of
video, the sound energy of a telephone) to generate the illusion of another
(e.g., puppets, pictures, and avatars)
This is the perennial quest of
telecommunication, the transportation of the senses. How can we use
telecommunication technology to collapse space and storage devices to collapse
time so that communication between two distant human beings is possible? At
present, further advancement of this long standing design goal takes the form
of the design of social virtual environments populated by avatars who display
the real time transmission of some of the body's communication cues (e.g.,
morphology, motion, sound, and physical force).
7.1.2. Creating an artificial other (robots and animals)
Creating an artificial other is the age-old, God-overthrowing dream of
human creativity, (i.e., robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.), the desire
to create a device that can mimic the morphology, motion, and communication
behaviors of intelligent sentient beings (i.e., humans, animals, etc.) or
serve their creators in the performance of menial tasks [(Sheehan & Sosna, 1991)]. In virtual environments this
social presence is the social presence created by agents.
On the surface the goal of social presence seems simple enough. But the
design of truly interactive social presence is horrendously complex. The
symbol of this challenge is the Turing test. It some ways it is only a limited
challenge, because it requires little embodiment of the other -- the computer
only types text messages to the "judge" who determines whether the other is an
artificial intelligence or a human intelligence. A convincing, fully
articulated being may be more challenging, and given the technology of the
day, beyond the possibility that Turing imagined. But the presence of another
body make the Turing test easier. If convincing morphology is present, less
intelligence may be required to fool the user into believing that a human
intelligence is "present." Users may be fooled by convincing morphology and
believe an artificially intelligent agent is really a humanly directed avatar.
7.2 Definition of social presence
In past research it has been
useful to consider what aspects of social presence are supported in media such
as the telephone or email systems [(Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Rice, 1993)]. Researchers in this tradition have listed social
cues and semiotic devices that are present or absent in a particular
technology. The emphasis has been on the consequences of the absence of such
cues on comprehension, collaboration, and other forms social interaction.
Discussion focused on whether the glass of social presence was half-full or
But if we dig a little deeper, we find that social presence may be a little
more complicated and interesting than this initial discussion. The perception
of social presence might be defined as:
The minimum level of social presence occurs when users feel that
a form, behavior, or sensory experience indicates the presence of another
intelligence. The amount of social presence is the degree to which a user
feels access to the intelligence, intentions, and sensory impressions of
How does this definition help us? As [Husserl (1973)] pointed out, we have phenomenal access to our
intelligence, intentions, and sensory impressions. The perception of the other
is the empathetic simulation of internal states of another "if we were there
in the space" over there. The simulation of the other is based on bodily
motions and cues. It occurs so easily that we fail to see the artifice of it
all. A few, like severe autistics, cannot do it at all. Others overdo it when
they anthropomorphize animals, the sun, plants, and other physical phenomena.
Given the thousands of years of anthropomorphic projection, it is perhaps not
surprising when recent research reminds us that we tend to anthropomorphize
computers and treat them as "social actors" [(Reeves & Nass, 1996)].
Rather than seeing social presence as a partial replication of face-to-face
communication, we should more generally see social presence as a simulation of
another intelligence. The simulation is run in the body and mind of the
perceiver, and models the internal experience of some other moving, expressive
body. It is a simulation because the simulation occurs whether or not the
moving object has intelligence or intentionality, whether the "other" is a
moving human being or an animation composed of nothing more than moving
patterns of ink. The definition above suggests that social presence applies to
the mediated experience of all forms of "intelligence." This perceived
intelligence might be another human, a non-human intelligence such as an
animal, a form of artificial intelligence, an imagined alien or a god.
The definition of social presence also opens up
other possibilities. It also suggests that although mediated social presence
should be measured against the yardstick of face-to-face communication between
two human beings, it may be possible to develop a medium in which one feels
greater "access to the intelligence, intentions, and sensory
impressions of another" than is possible in the most intimate, face-to-face
communication. One aspect of what might be called
hyperpresence [(Biocca, forthcoming)] may be possible in the social presence
domain as well.
Of course, it is hard for us now to imagine a medium that can create
greater intimacy than face-to-face communication. But this misses the point of
social presence and the very artifice of the body itself. In face-to-face
communication the body is used to communicate one's sensory experiences,
observations, and inner states to another. The body is the medium for this
transfer. Communication codes such as spoken language and non-verbal codes
such as facial expression, posture, touch, and motion are used. But, for
example, inner states might be communicated more vividly through the use of
sensors that can amplify subtle physiological or non-verbal cues. These can
augment the intentional and unintentional cues used in interpersonal
communication to assess the emotional states and intentions of others.
[ Top ]
Is This Body Really "Me"? Self Presence, Body Schema, Self-consciousness,
The definitions of telepresence [(Biocca & Delaney, 1995; Sheridan, 1992; Steuer, 1995)] imply that telepresence is possible because the
subject of presence, defined as the subjective sense of being somewhere, is
not the physical body of a person. Specifically, [Loomis (1992) and Heeter (1992, 1995)] refer to the "phenomenal body" and "self,"
respectively, as the subject of presence, and imply that the phenomenal body
or the self does not always correspond with the physical body.
This phenomenal body or body schema has certain properties: e.g., perceived
shape and size, perceived relative location of the limbs and senses, etc .
Beyond this there is also an internal model of the self: e.g., perceived
qualities or traits that "cause" behavior, perceived states, etc. So inside
the virtual world there is more than a computer graphic representation of the
self, there is an internal subjective representation of the self, that is a
model of the self's body and a model of one's identity.
Self-presence is defined as users' mental model of
themselves inside the virtual world, but especially differences in
self-presence due to the short term or long term effect of virtual
environment on the perception of one's body (i.e., body schema or body
image), physiological states, emotional states, perceived traits, and
Self-presence refers to the effect of embodiment in
the virtual environment on mental models of the self, especially when that
model of the self is foregrounded or made salient. As with other forms of
presence, designers share the assumption that increases in self-presence are
correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly,
emotional development. In the words of Socrates, the goal to "know thyself" is
a worthy journey -- it may be the only journey!
Questions of identity formation and self-consciousness are very broad
issues pertaining to the formation of the individual. Most processes are by no
means unique to virtual environments. But the interaction with computers
raises some interesting questions in this domain [(e.g., Turkle, 1985)]. So in assessing the role of virtual
environments in influencing self-presence, we should concentrate on those
aspects of the environment that are radically different from the physical
Two issues emerge as most pertinent to virtual environments as opposed to
physical environments. Both pertain to the effect of progressive embodiment,
that is, the embodiment of the user's body via close coupling to the interface
and representations of coupled body via first person avatar geometry and
8.1 Embodiment in an avatar and the effects of mental model of the
When the user is embodied in an avatar two things are
- the mental model of the user's body (body schema or body image) may be
influenced by the mapping of the physical body to the geometry and topology
of the virtual body,
- The virtual body may have a different social meaning (i.e., social role)
than the user's body.
The latter, the social meaning of the avatar, is situationally or
environmentally dependent. For example, a "cowboy" avatar will have different
social meaning in historic "wild west" environment, a "New York Bar"
environment, or inside a pickup truck in a contemporary southern rural
environment. The social role of avatar body is partially determined, but not
defined, by its geometry and kinematics. Implicit and explicit social norms
that may be partially idiosyncratic to the virtual environment and imported
from the user's social environment finalize the social-semiotic role and
identity of the avatar. Issues of class, gender, occupational role, body type,
etc. are raised when considering this aspect of embodiment. The social meaning
of body morphology and social role and its effect on the self-schema is a rich
area. But most aspects of it (e.g., stereotyping) are not particularly unique
to virtual environments, and only partially under the control of designers.
For this reason, I will not pursue it further here.
Rather I will pursue a topic more unique to virtual environments. The
interaction of the virtual environment with the user's body schema in
immersive virtual environments may have a number of implications for the
design of virtual worlds. We can say that in almost any virtual environment
system with any significant level of embodiment, there are three bodies
present: the objective body, the virtual body, and the body schema. These
three bodies may be present even in comparatively primitive, non-interactive
virtual environments like standard television [(Meyers & Biocca, 1992)]. The objective body is the
physical, observable, and measurable body of the user. The virtual body is the
representation of the user's body inside the virtual environment. The body
schema is the user's mental or internal representation of his or her body.
Our body schema is a not stable, but labile [(Fisher & Cleveland, 1968; Fisher, 1970)]. The use of media can radically alter one's
body schema. In virtual and augmented reality systems, changes in the location
of the represented head or hands can significantly distort the body. [Biocca and Rolland (in press)] found that a small displacement
of vision in an augmented reality system triggered disruptive visuomotor
adaptation [(Welch, 1978)], or to put in another way a recalibration of
the body schema. When the users exited the virtual environment and reached for
objects in the physical environment, they exhibited significant distortions in
hand-eye coordination. A short anecdote will make this clear. The first
subject in the Biocca and Rolland experiment was drinking a cola prior to
beginning the study. As the end of the study, she reached for her cola and
quickly raised it to drink only to discover that she was about to pour it into
her eyes! In this case, the coordinate system of the visual system and the
motor system (specifically, the hands) had adapted to the geometry of the
virtual body, which had a different structure. The objective body was now "out
Distortions in body schema can also result from exposure to implicit
representations of the self, even in non-immersive environments like
television. [(Meyers & Biocca (1992)] found that exposure to videos that
emphasized an ideal body shape for women led to distortions in the their body
schema. The saw themselves as thinner than the young women in the control
There are other ways in which the objective body and phenomenal body may be
in conflict. Virtual environments cannot perfectly synchronize and map the
moving physical body of the user with the user's virtual body or avatar.
Representations of the body are never completely free of some form of
mismapping between user action (motor outflow) and sensory feedback (sensory
inflow). This mismapping often leads to some form of intersensory conflict.
Intersensory conflict, or the mismapping of the moving body, is believed to be
the source of simulation sickness [(Biocca, 1992)], a form of motion sickness experienced by some
users of immersive virtual reality.
What are we to conclude about embodiment and the design of avatars? It
appears that embodiment of the user in virtual environments may not be a
trivial design question. Problems such as intersensory conflict suggest that
the design of the user's avatar should not be seen as some virtual environment
equivalent of the selection of clothing or costume, especially in immersive
virtual environments. It appears that embodiment can significantly alter body
schema. Metaphorically, we might say that the virtual body competes with the
physical body to influence the form of the phenomenal body. The result is a
tug of war where the body schema may oscillate in the mind of the user of the
interface [(see Meyers & Biocca, 1992)].
[ Top ]
The Cyborg's Dilemma
As we approach the beginning of the next century, the problem of
embodiment and the representation of the body has become a central problem in
a number of overlapping, intellectual debates. Most appear to be directly or
indirectly stimulated by the progressive development of technologies of the
body, especially the development of new sensing and display devices. In the
neurosciences the development of sensing devices such as MRI, CAT, and PET
scans has contributed to a discussion of the role of body in fundamental
representational processes associated with reason and emotion (e.g., [(Damasio, 1996)]. In the design of artificial intelligence,
embodiment is debated in discussions of the role of body, its function in
ongoing representations of the external world, and its role in plans and
action (e.g., Haber & Weiss, 1996; Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980)]. In the humanities, a concern
over embodiment, fanned by feminist studies, debates the representations of
the body, mostly as circulated in media technologies such as film, TV and the
Internet, and its effect on social roles and identity. Here we see
Foucault-influenced [(Foucault, 1980)] debates about "technologies of the body."
Another version of our concern with the progressive embodiment is becoming
visible. The evidence of this concern can be found in our fascination with the
idea of the cyborg, the interface of the physical body with technology (e.g.,
[Gray, Figeueroa-Sarriera, & Mentor, 1995)]. The level of
progressive embodiment found in advanced forms of virtual environment
technology can be characterized as a form of cyborg coupling, the body coupled
with its technological extensions. This coupling, I have suggested, is
progressive. It is increasing over time and the body is getting tighter and
more integrated into every life (e.g., miniaturization, ubiquitous computing,
and wearable computing). This soma-technic coupling is beginning to highlight
what I call the cyborg's dilemma, a kind of Faustian bargain between us and
our technological alter-egos:
The cyborg's dilemma: The more natural the interface the
more "human" it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind. The more
the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind
adapts to the non-human interface. Therefore, the more natural the
interface, the more we become "unnatural," the more we become cyborgs.
In this article I have suggested ways in which the interface
is becoming more "human": in virtual and augmented reality, for example, the
interface's sensors and effectors are increasingly mapped to the body's senses
and motor systems; in the design of agents and avatars the interface presents
itself with a human face; and once inside the interface the user's body is
experienced in digital form. These are the immediate sources of the cyborg's
But my characterization of the cyborg's dilemma also raises a number of
important issues. First, my description might suggest that there is an escape
from the cyborg's dilemma. Some might feel that we can reject the new
technologies and avoid the uncertain choices and changes implied by the
cyborg's dilemma. It is not that simple. Anyone who believes that there is a
"natural" place where the body is not wedded to technology may be embracing
both technology and self-deception. Cyborg theorists point out that "we are
already cyborgs." We may have been cyborgs for centuries. The cyborg's dilemma
is present in our acceptance of the most primitive technologies: in a piece of
clothing, in a wrist watch, in a baseball bat, in short, in all technologies
that attach themselves and augment the body.
Secondly, it raises questions of what is "natural" about our relationship
to our technology. We tend to think of technology as something alien, not a
reflection of ourselves. Maybe we have been designed to be cyborgs. It may be
our nature, therefore "natural," to embrace our technologies. What do I mean?
A number of scholars have pointed to the similar neurological, cognitive, and
structural substrates shared among language, fine motor movements, and tool
use (see [(Gibson & Ingold, 1993)]. It may well be that the human
brain and body evolved to fully inhabit these externalizations of mental
processes and amplifications of the body that are our technologies. We are
inhabiting and building what [(Popper (1972)] calls the third world, a world that is not the
first world, the self, or the second world, the physical world, but the
stamping of human form on matter and energy. In the cyborg there may be part
of an evolving harmony of the self with the humanly design and extended forms
of physical matter and energy.
In his classic essay, "The role of somatic change in evolution," [Gregory Bateson (1972)] outlined what he called "an economics
of somatic flexibility." In the push for somatic flexibility in response to
pressures in the environment, he posited three classes of beings: adjusters,
regulators, and extraregulators. Humans were the classic example of the class
he called "extraregulators." Extraregulators achieve "homeostatic control
outside the body by changing and controlling the environment" (p. 362).
Evolution, he said favored the "extraregulators" who pushed the "locus of
control" for the somatic change to engineered changes in the environment. In
this way they achieved greater level of somatic flexibility. There is much
detail in this argument to work out and I cannot attempt it here. But if this
perspective on human and technological evolution is on the right track, it
says something significant about the relationship of the body to technology.
It suggests that we are designed to be cyborgs, to achieve a tighter and
tighter coupling of our minds and bodies with the externalizations of
ourselves, that part of the physical world that is mixed with human forms,
that part that is our technology.
Thirdly, the cyborg's dilemma raises profound questions about the locus and
stability of our individual identity. The pursuit of presence and the
telecommunication of the body pushes a tight coupling of the physical body and
the computer interface. To the degree that cognition and identity are embodied
in the simulations run by our sensors and effectors, then the mind in advanced
virtual environments becomes also adapted to a mediated body, an avatar, a
simulation of the cyborg body. Observing the day-to-day movements of our
consciousness between the experience of our unmediated body and our mediated
virtual bodies, we may come to ask: Where am "I" present?
 © 1997 IEEE. This article is an expanded version of a
keynote address given at the International Cognitive Technology Conference in
August, 1997. This expanded version is printed with permission from J. Marsh,
C. Nehaniv, & B. Gorayska (1997). Proceedings Second International
Conference on Cognitive Technology (pp. 12-27). August 25-28, 1997, Aizu,
 Those readers familiar with McLuhan's work will see the
echo of McLuhan's warning about the "Narcissus trance" that our
technologically "amputated" senses present us. But here, I argue that rather
than technological "amputation," I have a form of technological adaptation.
[ Top ]
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About the Author
[ Top ]
is the Ameritech Professor of Telecommunication and Director of the Media
Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Lab. Dr. Biocca's research explores
human-computer interaction in virtual environments. His most recent book,
Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality, co-edited with Mark Levy,
was selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for 1995. It was the first
volume to explore the communication applications and implications of virtual
reality. His forthcoming book, Presence of Mind in Virtual
Environments, will examine how the sensation of "presence" in virtual
environments might assist human intellectual and physical performance. Dr.
Biocca has lectured or been a researcher at Stanford University, the
University of California-Berkeley, Duke University, the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and other
Address: M.I.N.D. Laboratory, Michigan State
University, East Lansing, MI 48824.