The Aesthetic Experience and the Sense of Presence in an Artistic Virtual Environment

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1 The Aesthetic Experience and the Sense of Presence in an Artistic Virtual Environment Dr. Brian Betz, Kent State University, Stark Campus Dr. Dena Eber, Bowling Green State University Gregory Little, Bowling Green State University Abstract: This project involves a convergence between 3 people with interdisciplinary research practices spanning electronic arts, experimental social psychology, computer science, and aesthetics. We are exploring levels of presence in an artistic virtual environment (AVE) to understand the relationship of presence to the aesthetic experience. Based on the quantitative and quantitative data we have collected to date, we have determined that there is a significant relationship between the level of presence and the aesthetic experience. The AVE used in this project will evolve and change according to our findings. We will discuss our project by presenting the evolving virtual world, video documentation of participant interactions, excerpts from personal interviews, and other data. Purpose: In the last few decades, Virtual Environments (VE) have gained recognition as computer simulated worlds that can be used for diverse applications such as training pilots for national defense, training workers in hazardous operations, visualizing complex information and scientific data, treating patients suffering from post-traumatic stress, manufacturing products, educating students, marketing products, and simulating military war games.

2 Since the early developments of the technology, artists have used virtual reality technology to create computer based virtual environment art installations. These installations often encompass an infinite number of artistic possibilities, including alternative presentations, environmental constructions, multi-sensory stimulation, viewer interactivity, and theatrical performance. In the case of a VE art installation, the ultimate product has shifted from the art object to the viewer's experience with the work. VE based artwork is a relatively new medium with new aesthetic, creative, and intellectual problems to solve and questions to ask. In particular, the description of presence and how it relates to the aesthetic experience will shed light on some of the unique factors of the VE art form as well as ways that presence in a VE might facilitate the aesthetic experience for viewers of VE or other art forms. By the aesthetic experience we mean an instant in which a person may feel "...A combination of interest and pleasure and curiosity...the moment is one of heightened attention to perception, which is what makes it both meaningful and memorable" (Walsh-Piper, 1994, p. 105). For some this means getting lost in the visual elements, and for others it is highly emotional. By Presence we mean the extent to which the viewer feels encompassed in the space provided by the VE, or "the level of personal presence within the synthetic or remote environment" (Kalawsky, 1993, p. 3 Viewers who experience a sense of presence as they encounter an artwork, or those who are having an aesthetic experience, also seem to work on a different scale of time. Those wrapped up in a work of art loose a sense of time as they feel free from the past and the future and experience emotional detachment from daily routines based on time (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).) This combination qualitative and quantitative study uses the aesthetic experience to provide another way to understand and apply presence. We will combine VE art and

3 the aesthetic experience with the notion of presence to come up with ideas that challenge and add to the theory surrounding new media. There is, therefore, a need to explore how relative time and presence relate to the aesthetic experience viewers have with VE works of art. The purpose of this study is to describe the relationship between presence and the aesthetic experience for a viewer with a VE work of art. The experience is interactive, auditory, and visually three-dimensional. Method: This study of the relationship between presence and the aesthetic experience will combine qualitative and quantitative research methodologies to analyze the experience of the participants. We will be using a current desktop version of Gregory Little s The Dance of the Body w/o Organs for initial instances of our study. Our questions and findings will ultimately influence subsequent iterations of the artwork. Qualitative Methodology The qualitative portion will follow a phenomenological model in which the researcher attempts to understand the meaning of an event, person, or process to people in a given situation (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). The specific instance of the phenomenon is a case. For this study, the case will be the aesthetic experience or presence of viewers in a VE artwork. We will study many instances of this phenomenon, thus rendering it a multi-case study. The data will include video tapes of the participants using the VE, narratives written by the participants, interviews, the art installation, surveys, and field notes from researcher observations. The participants will be randomly chosen from a population of college students. The general procedure will include a survey pre-

4 screening, then observing and talking with the viewers while they interact with the VE, followed by interviews with the participants. In addition, we will ask the participants of to write a reflection of their experience. For the qualitative portion, the researcher will be the key data collection instrument. During the Art Experience: Because we are investigating the nature of the Aesthetic Experience and how it relates to Presence in an artistic virtual environment, we want to preserve the participant's experience uninterrupted. We have been and will continue to watch the participant and write observational notes. If prompted by the participant, we will converse with her or ask questions that pertain to her reactions. Post-Session Interview Questions: The nature of qualitative research is inductive, thus interview questions often take the form of open-ended conversations (Merriam, 1988). We have conducted semistructured interviews that were be guided by issues and loosely worded questions. This allowed us to respond to new issues that emerged during the conversation. Below are a few sample questions and issues that we used as a guide. The interviews thus far touched on these points, but the questions were framed differently based on the conversation. Describe any sensory stimuli you felt during the experience. Describe any personal thoughts or memories that were cued by the experience. Varieties of presence, one example Physical space: To what extent do you feel that you were inside of an environment created by the artist?

5 How long do you think you spent with the artwork? Flow, two examples: Attention Focus: What were you thinking about when you were in the VE If not the VE, other things? Did you hear outside noises or were you distracted in any way? If so, what or how. Aesthetic Experience, two examples Describe any feelings of being carried off by the VE Describe what level you felt part of it the VE Qualitative Data and Analysis: We have thus far run one pilot study and one full study for the qualitative portion and are in the process of analyzing the results. Lessons from the Pilot Study: The participants in the pilot study interacted with the AVE as a required part of their psychology course. This proved to be problematic because some of the participants felt as if the experience was a burdensome requirement that they needed to do for a class rather than an art experience they would otherwise seek out. This frame of mind is not conducive to what we are measuring. We are trying to understand how presence in an AVE is related to the notion of the aesthetic experience. In a sense, we are exploring how one might facilitate the other. Among other professions, museum and studio art educators alike try to facilitate the aesthetic experience on many levels. A museum educator wants visitors to experience the art to the fullest extent and works daily to help viewers connect with and ideally

6 become physically and emotionally lost in the museum's offerings. Studio art educators try to teach their students the productive rewards of a rich aesthetic experience, or "flow," that they can have in the process of creating art. Further, students should understand and be sensitive to viewers, thus striving to provide raw material for the recipients to have a deep and meaningful encounter. It is in these and similar situations that our research may be helpful. In each scenario, the population is willing to have an experience. In the case of our pilot study, there were many who simply did not want to partake from the onset. In the subsequent study, we set the AVE up in a small art school gallery and let interested volunteers participate. This design mimics what could be a successful application of facilitating the aesthetic experience through presence in an AVE. The curiosity of the technology and the connection it has with the "here and now" can especially entice young viewers and perhaps build a bridge to paintings created hundreds of years ago. Despite the design flaw of our pilot study, we learned a few things that characterized the aesthetic experience and its relationship to presence. One significant lesson was the insight about how the results could be applied as a conceptual bridge to other art, which in turn, lead to a more successful design for the full study. The following analysis highlights some of these ideas. Initial Discussion and Analysis Although we have conducted both the pilot and the full study, we are still in the process of thoroughly analyzing and comparing both data sets. What we offer here are some intuitive pre-analysis brushstrokes.

7 For both studies, our population was quite large by qualitative standards, five for the pilot and ten for the full-blown version. Even though the participants in the first study were more concerned with their course grade, a few strong ideas surfaced. Among them were the contemporary connection the participants felt, the inaccurate estimation of time they spent with the AVE, the reported sense of curiosity, and a strong like or dislike of the experience. Contemporary Connection From the technology to the contents, there were things about the AVE that most participants identified with. One participant who was hesitant about the AVE admitted to having a personal reaction to the content that triggered personal reflection. He further said that he might not have explored the work in such depth had it not been for the similarity he felt it had to interactive video games he had experienced. Another participant who said she had no connection to "dusty old paintings" said that this work interested her because she understood the language of the digital medium over paintings that were hundreds of years old. In both cases, the participants understood the work because of their current exposure to digital media. It is this facet of presence in an AVE that might reach a new audience and help facilitate an aesthetic experience through virtual presence. Time and Curiosity: In most cases, the participants reported inaccurate estimations of the time they spent with the AVE. Most of the reports were underestimates, while some were over estimates. Nevertheless, the sense of time was warped. This, along with the high level of curiosity the participants reported and demonstrated are both characteristics of the

8 flow experience, which is indicative of the aesthetic experience. In fact, those who felt they were inside of the environment, a characteristic of presence, had the most inaccurate sense of time. The higher the curiosity, the more the AVE or other art can engage the viewer and in a sense hold their attention longer. It is this level of focus that is often hard to harness with the limited attention span that current media reinforces. Curiosity can lead to a high level of presence and a longer time with the art. More focus on the part of the viewer will lead to a lost sense of time and the discovery of interesting ideas that will pave a path towards the aesthetic experience. A Strong Like or Dislike of the Experience: An AVE is not for everybody. One participant simply could not accept the AVE as an art form and did not want to spend any time contemplating further ideas. This strong negative opinion was equally balanced by solid excitement and positive opinions about the work and its implications and possibilities. It is the latter of the two populations that the sense of presence can influence and encourage other desirable epiphanies such as a rich aesthetic experience. A person must be accepting and willing to embrace and trust new technology for our premise to be of any service. However, it is often these people who will benefit most from a conceptual bridge that connects their current lives to appreciating and having an experience with art works. The Full Study: The observations from the pilot study and more held true in our comprehensive study. The study recent and we hesitate to say much without a thorough analysis. However, our pre-analysis intuition indicates that each participant felt a high level of presence

9 evidenced by reports of physical sensations such as nausea or the feeling of floating, and observations such as their extreme warped sense of time. Our second design was a success and people clearly exhibited signs of presence that lead to further aesthetic encounters with the art. Recall that the participants in the second study were all voluntary and were attracted to the work out of curiosity, and once harnessed, lead them to be captivated. From there the viewers felt present and inside of the artwork, which in turn lead to a personal or aesthetic connection. It is this kind of setting that the correlation between virtual presence and the aesthetic experience can be applied to the fullest degree. Quantitative Research: For the quantitative portion of the study 100 subjects explored a desktop version of Little s The Dance of the Body w/o Organs. After experiencing the AVE, a questionnaire was administered which asked subjects to rate on a 5-point Likert scale the extent to which they had an aesthetic experience. In addition, the questionnaire included the Independent Television Commission - Sense of Presence Inventory (ITC- SOPI), developed by Lessiter et al. (2000), and Telegen's (1982) Absorption Scale. The ITC-SOPI employs four factors to measure presence: Physical space; for example, I felt I could have reached out and touched things (in the displayed environment.) Engagement; for example, I felt myself being drawn in. Ecological validity; for example, The content seemed believable to me.

10 Negative effects; for example, I felt nauseous. The absorption scale contains 31 items that require a true or false response. High absorption scores point toward a capacity for imaginative involvement, openness to experience, and imperviousness to distracting events. Absorption is viewed as a personality trait that, contingent upon environmental cues, may predispose individuals to experiencing altered states of reality. (See, Hirschman, 1983). Predicted positive correlations between ratings on the aesthetic experience measure and spatial presence, engagement, and ecological validity were found to be significant. A significant correlation was not found between aesthetic experience and negative effects. Thus, with the exception of negative effects, all aspects of presence measured by the ITC-SOPI were found to be associated with ratings on the aesthetic experience scale. Because negative effects measure such experiences as feeling dizzy or nauseous, it was not expected that negative effects would be related to the aesthetic experience. As predicted, significant positive correlations between the absorption scale and spatial presence, engagement, and ecological validity were also observed. A significant correlation was not found between the absorption scale and ratings on the aesthetic experience measure. Thus, subjects scoring higher on the absorption scale experienced a higher degree of presence in the AVE, but high absorption was not related to aesthetic experience. Conclusions and Discussion It may be concluded from these results that a relationship between psychological presence and the aesthetic experience does exists. Nevertheless, our correlation does

11 not allow for a statement regarding causality. It is possible that presence influenced subjects to have an aesthetic experience, but it is also possible that those subjects having an aesthetic experience felt a stronger sense of presence in the AVE. Another alternative is that a third unmeasured variable may be responsible for our results. Our findings also point to the role that personality may play in the occurrence of psychological presence. References: Bogdan, R. C., Biklen, S. K. (1992). Qualitative Research for Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990b) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row. Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Robinson, R. (1990a). The Art of Seeing. Malibu: Paul Getty Museum. Hirschman, E., (1983). On the acquisition of aesthetic, escapist, and agentic experiences. Empirical Studies of the Arts, Vol 1(2), Lessiter, J., Freeman, J., Keogh, E., & Davidoff, J. (2000). Development of a new crossmedia presence questionnaire: The sense of presence inventory.. Merriam, Sharon B. (1988). Case Study Research in Education, A Qualitative Approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. Tellegen, A., (1982). Brief manual for the differential personality questionnaire. Unpublished manual. Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

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