Reality, virtually

Alastair Somerville
2 min readJun 22, 2020


Sketch of Virtual Presence bot in theatre seat & text on using them to create embodied but virtual experiences of live events

How public spaces that depend upon collective experiences in crowded places, like theatres, universities and stadia, can work when Covid19 remains a risk is a problem.

Remote presence

A partial solution could be in using virtual presence or telepresence robots. Not the fully mobile versions that are demonstrated at conferences and show in technology articles. Stripped down versions that can be attached to existing auditorium seating.

The benefits are that the robots both act as social distance markers – blocking close proximity and lowering transmission risk between physically present audience members and as revenue creators – enabling a virtual presence with a personal perspective in a real place.

Offering safe choices

This mix of safe physical presence and embodied virtual presence offers a balance of choices for prospective attendees.

For those people who feel willing to share a physical place then they are clearly shown an auditorium (or lecture hall or football stadium) that is properly managed and Rick assessed.

For this people who feel unsafe in an open physical space then they can still feel the sense of being in a specific seat and with a personal perspective of a live performance.

Together, apart

The mix of physical and virtual means that people can socialise in distributed ways. People can experience an event together, even when physical divided.

Mixing income streams

This is also a mixed revenue model that respects the differing risk assessments that people will make over the next few months.

Some venues can have more people in them because they have more open spaces. Some are seriously limited by their architecture. Assessing the physical/virtual audience loadings will be a Health and Safety Assessment by venues and, perhaps, a council licensing issue.

Reality, virtually

Mixed Reality technologies, like virtual presence, were developed without any clear use case. Why a person could not or would not travel to another place, to attend a conference or lecture, was an unanswered question. Ideas of accessibility and sustainability were weakly raised but not in any sense of a mass market.

Covid19 has created such a mass market pressure. Huge numbers of physical venues and businesses that are unable to reopen safely in ways that protect paying attendees and in ways that have enough revenue to support a profitable business.

Mixed physical/virtual presence may be one route to a business model that is socially and corporately responsible.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX