Virtual Presence

On: September 14, 2015
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About Celine van Asbeck


A new application, ‘The companion’ has been launched for smart phones. Independent wrote about the new app. Student editor Aftab Ali states that five students from the University of Michigan decided to launch this new app after receiving many crime alert emails at their University campus.

This app promises that participants will get home sa­­fely. The business insider gives a description of the app; a GPS system that allows friends or family members to virtually walk you home.

The interface has options that allow you will be able to indicate whether you feel safe or not. Besides this function, the dailymail explained that the app has a speed dial number where the police can be informed. The application results in a presence of people who are not physically there. This virtual presence isn’t necessarily emergent or new, but the fact that people are virtual present for personal safety is new.


The ‘Companion app’ results in replacement of the human body by mechanical parts. Norbert Wiener introduced the term ‘cybernetics’, which refers to the physical fusion of human and machine. What does this replacement means in terms of neuroscience?

According to Sanchez-Vives and Mel Slater, much research on virtual presence has been done by technically oriented sciences and also in the field of psychology, but until 2005 there was not much research in this particular field within the neuroscience (332). Nevertheless, there are interesting perspectives on the field of virtual presence and neurosciences, and my main point is that neurosciences should be taken into account in technologically oriented disciplines.

There are two important subjects within neuroscience, behaviour and cognition. According to Wiener the replacement of machines has no influences on the signal:

‘When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words as far as my conscious goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation through the signal’ (16). 

The signal will remain the same, according to Wiener(16). Wiener writes about consciousness and the fact that human senses are operating the same way as real life communication. This does mean that machinery are effectively replacing human body’s. This doesn’t necessary mean that there are no differences, between obtaining information from a technological machine or obtaining information from a person, in any sense.

There is a difference in the behaviour of people, when technology interferes, looking at the communication process. Participants are connected through this application, and this connection means that the communication process is different than in real life communication. When communicating with the application occurs two subject roles in this process are virtualised (Muller, Rub, Hesse 186).

This virtualisation of people is being realized through GPS interfaces that merge the real world with the virtual world. This technology gives the illusion that people are in certain (safe) environments, which results in a kind of presence.

Virtual environments are created with the app ‘Companion’. Although the persons that are connected through GPS are not visible, they give you the feeling that each user is surrounded by others, which leads to a presence. This presence influences participant’s behaviour and cognition.

Allowing friends or family to walk a user home gives that user a sense of safety, even if they are not accompanying the user in person. This means that virtual environments can resolve distance and breaks with the idea that our senses can gain information about where we are located and who is surrounding us.

The human senses are replaced by technologies, with automatic systems serving as human senses. The results of virtual presence are that people are acting differently when there are people on the street than when there is no one surrounding them. Virtual presence is actually influencing our behaviour and our feelings.

According to David Porush, virtual reality serves as a metaphor for the brain because the brain creates perception of the world. Porush states that cognition and virtual reality cannot be distinguished from each other by our neural system (Hayles 275). Technology replaces our senses, which is why the signal doesn’t change, referring to Wiener, but our experience does change. The simulation has impact on our behaviour and cognition because they are operating exactly the same whenever the simulation is physically happening (Hayles 275).

‘Companion’ contributes to the illusion that the participant is in a safe environment, even though the environment has physically not changed; it’s only the behaviour and the feelings of the participant that have been changed, because of a certain virtual presence of people. The fact that the senses of a human are radically different than before the launch of the technology, the ‘companion’ app, places the physical world in different perspective from the participant.


Ali, Aftab.„University of Michigan group launches companion app to ensure students get home safe at night.” Independent.11 September 2015. <>

Dirk Muller, Aaron Rub and Wolfgang Hesse. ” Communication without sender or receiver? On virtualisation in the Information process.” Poiesis & Praxis.  Volume 5. Issue 3 (September 2008): 185-192. <>

Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and informatics. London:The university of Chigaco Press, 1999.

Maria V. Sanchez, Mel Slater. ”From presence through consciousness through virtual reality.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 6 (April 2005): 332-339.<>

Russon, Mary-Ann. „ A new app that lets users’ friends ‘virtually walk the home at night’ is exploring in popularity.” International Business Times. 3 September 2015. <>

Wiener, Norbert. 1954. Progress and Entropy in The Human Use of Human Beings Cybernetics. New York, NY. Houghton Mifflin: 28-47

Woollaston, Victoria. „Turn your iphone into a bodyguard: Companion app virtually accompies you on journeys and warns friends and family if you’re in trouble.” Dailymail.2015. 8 Septermber 2015. <>



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