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ISPR PRESENCE 2012 Conference: From Academics and Research to Application

December 3, 2012 | Telepresence Options


By Hannah C. Pedersen and Angela M. Cirucci,

We recently attended the 2012 International Society for Presence Research (ISPR) conference held in Philadelphia, PA in October. The presentations explored new ways to study presence and introduced innovative new ideas for practical applications. ISPR is a non-profit membership organization that was founded in 2002 to support academic research that is related to the concept of (tele)presence. Telepresence is referred to as the idea or feeling of "being there" in a virtual environment and more generally the illusion of nonmediation where users of any technology overlook the role that technology plays in their experiences. This was the 14th international workshop on presence, with previous conferences held throughout the world including the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Scotland, England and other U.S. locations.

ISPR 2012 conference dinner

The day before the formal conference began, the attendees were able to take a guided tour of presence-related sites around the city of Philadelphia while getting a chance to get to know one another in an informal setting. Stops included the 10 million pixel Experience Video Wall in the lobby of The Comcast Center and Temple University's Virtual Environment and Postural Orientation (VEPO) Laboratory.
During the conference itself, while many important concepts and developments were presented and discussed, there was still time to mingle, to share insights about the field, and to enjoy the ambiance of the city from the architecture to the cuisine, including a conference dinner.

At the official start of the conference, the question posed was this: How can we bring together telepresence research from the academic community and the work and needs of the business community?

The topics covered ranged from social media to self-checkout avatars, sailboat training to public speaking, yet all involved the idea of creating a space for the user of the technology at hand to experience a feeling of "being there" rather than just observing: it was to bring the participants into the moment rather than simply noticing a moment was occurring.

"How Immersive is Enough?"
James Cummings, Jeremy Bailenson, and Mailyn Fidler of Stanford University presented a look at an ambitious review, a "meta-analysis" of past research on presence and virtual environments titled "How immersive is enough?" While research and theory show that an increase in immersion in a virtual environment leads to an increase in presence and then task performance, However, less is known about which factors that lead to presence are most important and most cost-effective. How much of the external world should be removed? How big should the screen be? How important are 3D and localized audio? The research is ongoing but the effort is clearly justified.

Immersive Videoconferencing
Belgium scholars Shirley Elprama, Katriina Kilpi, Aljosha Demeulemeester, An Jacobs, Peter Lambert, and Rik Van de Walle developed a mock-up and then a prototype called ICOCOON, to explore presence evoked during video conferencing. ICOCOON is an immersive videoconferencing system developed through a collaboration of social scientists and engineers. It uses both avatars of the participants around a table and a video feed of the participants. The authors explored four dimensions of presence as defined by previous research and associated with the ultimate goals of increased enjoyment, involvement, and task performance efficiency. The dimensions are presence as social richness, as realism, as transportation, and as immersion.

Screenshots of the ICOCOON's Virtual Meeting Room.

User perceptions regarding each dimension came through in focus groups and expert reviews. An interesting result was that because ICOCOON is able to pick up and relay only predefined cues such as someone speaking audibly or raising a hand, participants were able to multitask without potentially disrupting the concentration of the other participants. As many know, during meetings, there is the potential for the attendees to multitask while the conversation flows because of the perception that the meeting is not relevant, is boring, or if other things may be thought of as being more important. Reactions to ICOCOON suggest that everyone feeling present at all times may not be the best design goal.

Although this technology is still in development, it does appear to be quite promising.

Shared Mediated Workspaces
Charlie Gullstrom, Tjerk de Greef, Leif Handberg, Harold Nefs, and Peter Parnes of the Netherlands discussed shared, mediated workspaces. In developing their prototype technologies they were interested in where shared documents could be placed during meetings and how the participants would view one another. By exploring large projections of remote interiors, they found that people could have visual access to one another's work environment, thus feeling like they were a part of the other person's world. To do this, the researchers used tools including HTML5 and WebRTC and the context of mediated sketching, a shared view/workspace for collaboration between the (initially just two) participants.

Mediated Sketchpad

The researchers observed that the participants developed shared actions and behaviors. Through having informants play Tic-Tac-Toe, the researchers learned that interaction within the mediated space became natural and spontaneous--very similar to face-to-face interactions--and the players wanted to play other games that would normally only be possible in a face-to-face setting. The researchers found that because the participants were able to see the hands and/or arms of one another, turn taking was possible. Also, the alignment of the camera and the shared documents did not influence the ability for turn taking.

An architectural drawing instructor noted that the orientation of the people involved was an important component, and it depended on the particular task the participants were sharing. The natural manner in which a drawing instructor would interact with their student would be to be seated side-by-side rather than across from one another and the focus would be on the hands, not the face and this would allow for a strong feeling of connectedness.

The researchers say that the shared mediated workspace enabled mediated presence and they are now focused on refining the prototypes to increase spatial connectedness, social connectedness, and information connectedness.

It is interesting to note that the above examples are really not just about presence as transportation, they involve a social aspect; this is why many of the participants stressed a need for further understanding of social presence.

What is social presence?
Social presence is an important part of the telepresence equation. Paul Skalski (Cleveland State University), David Westerman (West Virginia University), and Stephanie Kelly (North Carolina A&T State University) discussed social presence in their panel (which won the award for Top Paper/Presentation), "Considerations for Social Presence Theory, Research, and Application in the 21st Century."

Matthew Lombard (standing) presents (from left to right) David Westerman, Stephanie Kelly, and Paul Skalski

Social presence was loosely described as virtual actors presented and experienced as real people, whether through physical attributes, emotion, or simply text. Clearly, the most common place for social presence today is social media. An important point the panel discussed was that social presence does not have to be synchronous. More media today use asynchronous communication - texting, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail - and people feel connected even though their interactions do not resemble face to face communication. David Westerman even suggested people have a "need for presence," which can be satisfied with many technologies. The panel members stressed that social presence is integral to studying interpersonal communication.

To bring this into the practical realm, Stephanie Kelly shared her research regarding online instruction. With online enrollment soon to exceed traditional classroom enrollment, it is important to not only measure the success of these programs, but to be at the forefront of new online learning technologies. Many assumed that success in the online programs would be based on the student's technological aptitude. But, in fact, for the students to be motivated research shows, they need to perceive their instructor as a real person. This, however, did not have to come through technology that recreates the face-to-face meeting or classroom. Instead, students were interested in projecting and being acknowledged, feeling the teacher's presence through the designing and facilitating of the course, effectively interacting and cohesively communicating, and reducing uncertainty--in other words, social presence.

Other presenters showed similar areas ready for new innovations.

Angela Cirucci considered how Facebook creates presence - again without synchronous, face-to-face visuals - and how it could become even more successful by incorporating presence research and theory. Using four themes of "I am immersed," "I am social," "I am there," and "I am an owner," she explored how Facebook usage evokes different types of presence in users and how these innovations can be applied to future social media technologies.

Julia Czaja (Temple University) used qualitative interviews to explore intimate telepresence and how our mobile media has provided "perpetual contact" between us and our intimate partners. These mobile media, she explained, are becoming engrained in our understanding of ourselves and others. We keep our devices close to us, symbolizing where we want the person at the other end to be.

Presented by Maria Cipollone (Temple University), the work of Richard Wolman (Harvard Medical School) and Richard Pomerance (private practice, Boston) explored how telepresence can be used during divorce cases and custody battles. Can a parent be "there" via technology? Does this presence, this virtual visitation, count as parenting? Wolman and Pomerance found extremely positive results through their qualitative interviews with families who had been using this technology. They found much value in Skyping as a replacement for visitation. However, the Skyping parent usually did not live far away, and it was assumed in the audience discussion that the parents likely got to see their children in person as well. We wondered if these positive reactions would fade in cases where Skyping or other conferencing becomes the only way for parents to "visit."

Even during exercise, Jihyun Kim (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania) and C. Erik Timmerman (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) found that the social presence of a virtual coach providing positive feedback led exercisers to enjoy their activity, feel as though they were learning new skills, and find the game useful.

Responses to an online survey by Matthew Lombard (Temple University) and Lisa Weinstein (University of Massachusetts Amherst) emphasized just how common telepresence is in our current media landscape. Almost all of the participants gave rich descriptions of eclectic presence experiences. Television, movies and video chat were the most common of the 20 technologies mentioned. Effective media led the participants to feel so much presence that they reported yelling at media, feeling physically jolted, and experiencing emotional and even sexual intimacy through Skype, among other reports.

As one can see, there were many varying concepts and applications about how to situate people who use technology in a variety of settings and giving them a sense of "being there." While some of the projects presented are in the beginning stages, others could be about to make their debut into our reality.

For more information regarding presence research visit To read the papers that were presented at the 2012 conference visit

Hannah C. Pedersen is a PhD candidate in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. She is working on her dissertation in organizational communication and emergency management with a focus on emergency management communication media choice for the purpose of conveyance and convergence during an emergency incident.

Angela M. Cirucci
is a PhD student in Mass Media and Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Angela researches social media and its effects on perceiving reality and forming identity. She is particularly interested in Facebook and its many similarities to video games -- including its extremely immersive nature. Angela recently was awarded the 2012 Linda Elson Scholar Award for Top Student Paper at the 2012 Media Ecology Association Convention for her "First Person Paparazzi" published in Telematics and Informatics.

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