Co-presence Affordance in Virtual Worlds

In one of my classes, we were discussing the affordances present in different types of computer mediated communication. Afterwards, I was reading through one of Prof. Kraut’s papers about using visual information to collaborate on physical tasks. It got me thinking more about the co-presence affordance, and whether it is considered to be a part of virtual worlds like Second Life. Note: The co-presence affordance means that while communicating with others, you share the same environment as your conversation partners– in the Kraut study, this would be the example where subjects are repairing the bicycle together, physically in the same room. In comparison, the video and audio only tasks do not have co-presence affordance; for more examples of the resulting trade offs, see the article.

For example, in Second Life, there is some sense of co-presence because in the game world, players think of their avatars as the reality which they are currently in. Thus, you could say that Second Life has co-presence because even though you aren’t in the same environment as the actual player, to some degree neither are you. Are the details sufficient for true co-presence, though? You can carry out actions in order to succeed in some Second Life tasks, like following someone somewhere. However, you would never be able to accomplish a task that requires complexity such as the bicycle repair task. Though Second Life tries to imitate the actions a person could make in real life, it does not have the co-presence affordance sufficient to stand in for FTF interactions.

However, players in Second Life adapt their view of the world to that which is available to them (in this case, rough movements like a “follow me” task). How similar to real life must an experience be in order to be considered “true co-presence”? In a game with a restricted view of reality, where more detailed tasks are not required, are restricted affordances enough? Perhaps some of the appeal of virtual worlds like Second Life comes from being able to ignore fine tuned interactions (such as those necessary to repair a bike) and focus on other types of interactions instead.

It would be interesting to see how interactions in virutal worlds change if they gain more realistic co-presence affordances. I have heard of situations where people have tried to use Second Life for non-recreational purposes, such as work meetings and training sessions. I imagine that some of the motivation for trying these is to capitalize on Second Life’s supposed co-presence affordance, but perhaps the reason that these have not caught on is that the types of co-presence that session leaders were hoping for– students being able to observe a speaker’s facial features, or a speaker being able to tailor a lecture based on the body language of the students– are not yet present in this digital world. Thus, this sort of interaction could even be detrimental because it forces users to adapt to a different environment with different rules. The co-presence experienced is really a virtual one, and the ability to translate between this and the real world is an interesting challenge.