Virtual Reality and the Human Connection, “Presence” vs. “Co-Presence”

Our team is currently conducting research in the use of Virtual Reality to support NASA’s vision of future manned exploration missions. There are many engineering challenges to be sure, but we have been focused on the human element. Given the unprecedented duration and distance of exploration missions, future explorers will face communications challenges due to the lack of real time communications. New methods are needed to help Space and Earth connect and interact in meaningful ways. In fact, new methods are needed to help any geographically separated group connect and interact. Currently, the state of the art is video conferencing. Intuitively, we know this is not the same as in-person communication. It lacks the richness of being in the same space, of having agency over a shared environment, of being able to interpret subtle guestures as they relate to the situational context. It lacks the information rich minutiae of being in another’s presence, it lacks “co-presence”. We define co-presence as a sense of synchronized mutual and situational awareness of individuals who are simultaneously, though not necessarily synchronously occupying a physical or virtual space.

Physical objects and environments have been a part of communications since before the invention of language. Since the dawn of the information age, we have significantly increased our communication reach, but our modalities have been stripped down to rely heavily on language. Those who are not prolific with words but communicate with other means essentially cannot establish the same voice and influence as those who are gifted in language, regardless of their underlying message. VR/AR/MR has the capability to re-integrate rich environments and artifacts to dramatically enhance the way we can relate to each other and create share experiences, fundamentally enhancing each individual’s ability to tell their story in whatever method they choose, regardless of geographic boundaries. Mixed Reality can provide us with a more comprehensive toolbox with which to fulfill our contracts as social beings, which in turn can positively impact our wellness, and those around us.