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What is presence?

The semantic field of presence is characterized by two basic elements: temporality and spatiality . If we look at the etymology of presence, we see in fact that the term comes from the Latin ‘praeesse’, meaning ‘being in front of’. At the same time the Webster dictionary’s definition for ‘present’, includes ‘existing now’, which corresponds to our common perception of this word as a temporal indicator. So, we can say that presence includes both time and space. We perceive people as present when they are in the same time and space as we are. In formal terms, we can say that presence corresponds to the two conditions: Being here AND being now. What happens if those two conditions are not satisfied? This is the situation of absence NOT being here AND NOT being now.

When both spatial presence and temporal presence are missing we have ‘absence’. In other words, we perceive someone as absent when he/she does not share our temporal and spatial dimension. When only one of the two conditions is not satisfied we have: Being here AND NOT being now o NOT being here AND being now.

The first case corresponds to a spatial presence but a temporal absence. We perceive the presence of someone as being in the physical place where we are but not in the same temporal span. We called this situation ‘traces’. For example the footprints left by someone else communicate to us his/her physical presence in the past.

The other possibility is having a presence in time but not a presence in space. We perceive the other as physically distant but present in a temporal sense. This is the case of real-time interactions over distance, such as talking on the phone or participating ni a videoconference, where we communicate in a simultaneous way with someone that is physically distant (tele-communication).

We believe that the field between traces and tele-communication offers significant opportunities for interaction designers to experiment with and shape people’s feelings of closeness and distance. By playing with the cultural and sensorial elements that currently create ‘the sense of presence’ in situations of physical or temporal absence it is possible to envision new technological solutions that can enrich connections between people separated by distance.

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