Listening, Corporeality, Place and Presence

Listening, Corporeality, Place and Presence

Susan Turner (Napier University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-020-2.ch009
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This chapter considers the role of sound, and more specifically, listening, in creating a sense of presence (of “being there”) in “places” recreated by virtual reality technologies. We first briefly review the treatment of sound in place and presence research. Here we give particular attention to the role of sound in inducing a sense of presence in virtual environments that immerse their users in representations of particular places. We then consider the phenomenology of listening, the nature of different types of listening, and their application: listening is active, directed, intentional hearing, and is not merely egocentric, it is body-centric. A classification of modes of listening that draws on work in film studies, virtual reality, and audiology is then proposed as a means of supporting the design of place-centric virtual environments in providing an effective aural experience. Finally, we apply this to a case study of listening in real and simulated soundscapes, and suggest directions for further applications of this work
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Introduction: Sound, Sense Of Place And Presence

Studies of sense of place and allied concepts, such as spirit of place, place identity, and place attachment, are distributed across the literature of phenomenological and social geography (the classic work of Relph, 1976, Tuan, 1977, among others) environmental psychology (e.g., Canter, 1997), cultural and leisure studies (e.g., Haldrup & Larsen, 2006; Jorgenson & Stedman, 2001), and philosophy (from Aristotle to Bachelard, 1994 and Casey, 1997). Throughout, the material characteristics of the physical space are treated as intrinsic to sense of place, comprising not merely the natural or manmade landscape, but sights, smells, and sounds. As Tuan observes, sound serves to delineate the dimensions of a place; to create a sense of its size and the relative distance of objects within it from the observer. Further, places have their own characteristic sounds, some of which serve to identify a particular sort of place – the conversation, keyboard clicks, and printer noises of a busy office, the constant thrum of a busy road, the birdsong and leaf rustle of a wooded glade – others of which are unique to that place alone. This is vividly encapsulated in the US National Public Radio (NPR) network’s solicitation of “audio postcards”: “… the sound should somehow be remarkable -- the rasping of 17-year cicadas so loud it drowns out conversation; the music of church bells in the medieval German city resonating with history and spirituality and celebration; the midnight creaking and snapping of birches in the Maine woods in January eerie and otherworldly. This is sound that is not just ambience. It’s the audio equivalent of that four-color photo. It should really make listeners feel they were there.” (NPR, n.d.)

However, a detailed treatment of sound and sense of place is rare in the academic social science literature1, perhaps because much recent work has focused heavily on nonmaterial, sociocultural meanings of place. For this we must turn to the present research community, and as we shall see later, to film design. There are many possible definitions of sense of presence, some emphasizing the illusion of nonmediation in virtual environments, others the quality of being with others who are not physically present, but for our purposes here, we intend the sense of “being there” in an environment (including real environments as well as virtual environments, or the location of a movie scene, or the setting of a chapter in a novel…) even when one is physically situated in another. (Insko, 2003, Witmer & Singer, 1998).

Sound has been explored largely as a contributory factor to sense of presence: sound is better present rather than absent (Gilkey & Weisenberger, 1995; Hendrix & Barfield, 1996); usually better spatialised than not (Bormann, 2005; Hendrix & Barfield, 1996; Murray, Arnold, & Thornton, 2000; Stanney, Mourant, & Kennedy, 1998); and, generally, the more realistic (or perhaps plausible) the better. Sound is also used to suggest a location or event, rather than simply reproducing it, or to evoke a particular mood, as discussed inter alia in Robertson, de Quincey, Stapleford, & Wiggins (1998) and Sheridan (2004), and in common with other forms of mediated experience such as (video) games or movies: Kubrick’s use of Ligeti’s requiem in 2001: A Space Odyssey successfully transported us to the depths of the solar system, while John William’s theme music for Jaws created an extraordinary sense of dread, respectively. In present research that is explicitly related to sense of place2, recent sound-oriented work includes the BENOGO project (Serafin & Serafin, 2004; Turner & Turner, 2006), whose virtual, photo-realistic recreations of botanic hothouses, cityscapes, and interior environments included equally realistic audio and EMMA, where the virtual “Relaxation Island,” intended for psychotherapeutic use, was set in a soundscape of mewing seabirds and lapping waves (Freeman, Lessiter, Keogh, Bond, & Chapman, 2004).

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