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Tracy James
IU University Communications

George Vlahakis
IU University Communications

Anna Rzewnicki
NCSU College of Management

Last modified: Monday, September 21, 2009

NSF-funded study by IU researchers targets 'presence' in virtual worlds

Sept. 21, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Science Foundation has awarded $203,549 to a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from Indiana University and North Carolina State University. The project focuses on using virtual worlds to support business processes, such as product development, involving team members often spread over corporate campuses, multiple time zones or even different continents.

A virtual world may be described as a computer simulated 3D space where users, through representations known as avatars, can meet and interact with others and with content of the world, such as documents. While often used for social or gaming purposes, virtual worlds (like Sun's Wonderland, Linden Lab's Second Life, and others) are being tailored for business-oriented use with a growing number of companies, public sector organizations, and academic institutions in various stages of exploration and investment.

"In terms of real business impact, many unanswered questions remain, including whether virtual worlds improve performance or the experiences of remote collaborators," said Anne P. Massey, Dean's Research Professor at IU's Kelley School of Business.

The quality of a virtual world is often described by the degree to which a user feels a sense of "virtual presence" or being "in" the world."

"Developers consider presence to be a desirable characteristic and there is a belief that it is related to performance. However, there is limited evidence to support these views," said Mitzi Montoya, Zelnak Professor of Marketing Innovation at NC State's College of Management.

Johnston photo

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Jeanne Johnston

Print-Quality Photo

For business, creating or investing dollars on worlds that increase presence is premature without evidence that presence and collaborative performance are related, Massey added.

"Being able to measure and understand the role of virtual presence in collaborative processes is an important foundational step to assessing real business impact," she said.

Massey and Montoya, along with Jeanne Johnston, assistant professor of kinesiology in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, and Michael Devetsikiotis, professor of electrical and computer engineering in NC State's College of Engineering, will conduct a series of experiments to develop a scale to specifically measure Collaborative Virtual Presence (CVP) and assess its relationship to performance. As part of scale validation efforts, supplementary physiological data will be collected by Johnston.

"In the real world, people can have physiological reactions, such as increased heart rate, to events," she said. "It seems reasonable to expect that similar events in a virtual world may produce similar responses, particularly if one feels a greater sense of presence."

Devetsikiotis said that from a bottom-line perspective, developers of virtual worlds as well as the businesses that deploy them need a better understanding of how design characteristics, like presence, influence performance.

"This project is a step in that direction," he said.

To speak with Massey or Johnston, contact Tracy James, IU University Communications, at 812-855-0084 or To speak with Montoya or Devetsikiotis, contact Anna Rzewnicki at