I find myself looking at her intensely. One key stroke and she turns around and looks at me. Her almond-shaped, dark eyes lock with mine. At times, she seems to fidget. Nervously, she turns left then right. Behind her, the museum stretches into a virtual horizon. This virtual woman is me. In the past, I have spent more than a few hours and a few Linden dollars modifying her body dimensions and shopping for the clothes and hair styles. It seems that being comfortable in a virtual body contributes to my sense of presence in the virtual world. And while I marvel at how well some folks can inhabit the shape of a nonhuman, I must confess I’m still confined to my human form as the best skin to help me feel I’m “there.” Only once did my virtual body take the shape of a calavera or skeleton during the Smithsonian LVM Dia de los Muertos Halloween Costume Contest. Needless to say, the feeling of incognito was liberating and just as fun as wearing a costume in the real world, further enhancing my sense of presence.
Duplicating real world experiences in virtual reality seems to be a key factor in developing presence, something LVM has mastered over the past three years of organizing and hosting Dia de los Muertos festivities. Not only are these events helpful in understanding, appreciating and learning about cultura, but one has the opportunity to explore the concept of self identity. My virtual self has taught me a thing or two about my real self that I had no idea existed, and while I will not get into those moment of revelation here, I will say that I have applied those new found traits of my virtual self out in the real world. But the experience of developing presence in virtual reality is not a solitary activity. Virtual reality is a social media, after all. Interaction with other avatars is an important element in developing a sense of presence. I feel “there” when I’m acknowledged by another avatar, a simple interchange of hellos seems to suffice, but events like the LVM’s Cafe Sin Fronteras poetry readings and workshops where groups of avatars are gathered gives me a sense of community. I feel connected. We socialize, exchange, read and discuss poetry and/or other topics just as we would in real life somewhere in a cafe, and more than once, we forget we are not physically sitting together, or are we? I have found, too, that returning to familiar virtual surroundings has been detrimental in my sense of presence. Experience and familiarity with the place seems to help in blurring the “there” and “here.” Perhaps this is the reason why I love returning to La Pacita and the Sin Fronteras Cafe over and over again even when there are no events scheduled. The place feels like my second home away from home.