Using Extended Reality to Study the Experience of Presence

Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2023:65:255-285. doi: 10.1007/7854_2022_401.


Extended reality (XR), encompassing various forms of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), has become a powerful experimental tool in consciousness research due to its capability to create holistic and immersive experiences of oneself and surrounding environments through simulation. One hallmark of a successful XR experience is when it elicits a strong sense of presence, which can be thought of as a subjective sense of reality of the self and the world. Although XR research has shed light on many factors that may influence presence (or its absence) in XR environments, there remains much to be discovered about the detailed and diverse phenomenology of presence, and the neurocognitive mechanisms that underlie it. In this chapter, we analyse the concept of presence and relate it to the way in which humans may generate and maintain a stable sense of reality during both natural perception and virtual experiences. We start by reviewing the concept of presence as developed in XR research, covering both factors that may influence presence and potential ways of measuring presence. We then discuss the phenomenological characteristics of presence in human consciousness, drawing on clinical examples where presence is disturbed. Next, we describe two experiments using XR that investigated the effects of sensorimotor contingency and affordances on a specific form of presence related to the sense of objects as really existing in the world, referred to as 'objecthood'. We then go beyond perceptual presence to discuss the concept of 'conviction about reality', which corresponds to people's beliefs about the reality status of their perceptual experiences. We finish by exploring how the novel XR method of 'Substitutional Reality' can allow experimental investigation of these topics, opening new experimental directions for studying presence beyond the 'as-if' experience of fully simulated environments.

Keywords: Experience of presence; Extended reality; Reality monitoring; Sense of presence; Substitutional reality; Virtual reality.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Virtual Reality*