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  • Steven Cholerton

VR and the Paradox of Presence



The goal for most VR practitioners is presence. This is the feeling of being 'there', in other words being-in-a-world, which from a technical VR perspective means being immersed in 360 degrees of 3D information with ambisonic sound, and perhaps even a 4th dimension, such as touch or smell.

Yet despite these efforts, the emotional engagement produced by narrative VR (as opposed to VR games or visitor attractions) remains, in general, less than in traditional film, where key aspects of character and plot can be conveyed in visceral close-ups or sequences of medium shots that inject pace and drama into a scene.

Somehow, when it comes to storytelling, presence comes up short.

In traditional cinema, one looks forward (toward the screen) and is told a story that plays out within a rectangular frame. By contrast, VR has been described as ‘reverse theater-in-the-round' with the viewer standing at the center of a 360° radius of action. The difference is profound.

In VR, the viewer feels in the scene, not apart from it. Until something happens to contradict this sensation, the default narrative stance of VR is 'first-person'. One feels like a participant in the story because one is literally 'there', and seemingly capable of doing the main things humans have done since time immemorial, which is to look around and investigate.

Many VR filmmakers play to this intuition, by having secondary characters address the viewer/camera, or by plot devices that treat the VR user’s point-of-view (the camera position) as an explicit point-of-view (POV) shot. Most VR films, for instance, play out at head height, simulating a human point-of-view. But even when the camera is raised or lowered, one still feels appreciably 'there' - a literal fly-on-the-wall.

From a narrative point-of-view, there are some problems with this.


Firstly, in traditional cinema, a POV shot is never under one’s control. When a character addresses you, you cannot ‘look away’ as you can in a VR film. You can look away from the screen, of course, whilst seated inside the cinema theatre (effectively opting out of the movie) but this is not an option available to the VR user.

This sets up a basic cognitive dissonance that VR has yet to resolve, namely that one feels a physiological sense of presence at the same time as a mechanic of detachment that allows you to act (move/look) as if you were NOT truly present. In a VR film, one can ignore social interactions or significant plot points without any appreciable cost, which is not like real life at all.

This dissonance remains when the VR filmmaker attempts to shift narrative stance from the first to the third person. Even as a fly-on-the-wall (or a mouse-on-the-floor), the viewer feels like a participant in the scene, albeit an invisible one.


Some VR pundits talk about the Swayze or Ghost effect in VR, which is the feeling that one is a disembodied ghost, floating (usually at head height) in each scene, wondering why no one is looking in one’s direction.

Another factor contributing to this uneasy storytelling paradigm is the basic identification process with other characters.


In a traditional 2D film told in the third-person, one lives vicariously through the characters depicted. There is a clear sense of separation that allows for situations-in-extremis. Although one experiences the trials and tribulations of the hero second-hand, their jeopardy – whether hanging from a cliff-face or squaring off with an assassin - becomes our own, through well established psychological processes of empathy and identification.

But if we are watching the story unfold from a position that is simultaneously IN the story, we experience a strange conjunction of first- and third-person perspectives. We are ‘there’ and yet we cannot help or interact with the hero. We also may feel vulnerable ourselves – for what if we take a tumble off the cliff, or the assassin turns on us?

This dissonance works against engagement, rather than in its favour, promoting a kind of existential confusion that may actually inhibit empathy.

Presence therefore seems to carry these built-in contradictions. If one is there, capable of looking around, implicitly capable of agency, then why is no one acknowledging you? Or why, in a story that is purportedly unfolding in front of you, does one feel vulnerable and ‘in jeopardy’.

Besides the lack of pace and drama that I have argued (in my previous blog post) is principally due to restrictions on editing, VR is also bedeviled by this second storytelling problem, which may be described as the paradox of presence - being there but not being there.