The Human Need for Presence in XR, with Caitlin Krause

When we deepen our level of presence in XR, it translates to how we lead better, manage better, and learn better. This pays dividends in our connection and wellbeing in the “real world,” too!  That’s what today’s guest, author and XR designer Caitlin Krause, specializes in. Caitlin authored “The Importance of Presence” chapter in The Global Resource Guide to XR Collaboration, and joins Julie to discuss the importance of presence in XR environments.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance and individualize learning for everyone. Caitlin Krause is my next guest, and she is a globally recognized learning and leadership expert, author, and keynote speaker. In her 2019 book — “Mindful by Design” — through her consulting, she helps individual leaders and teams leverage mindfulness, storytelling, and design principles to connect more deeply with their communities. Caitlin’s organization, MindWise, focuses on creating experiences that increase awareness, emotional intelligence, and creative collaboration opportunities. Thank you so much for joining me today, Caitlin. I really look forward to our conversation.

Caitlin: Thanks so much, Julie. It’s great to be here.

Julie: We’re going to talk about something so important today that is maybe not on everybody’s mind, but it certainly is on ours. I’m just going to pass it over to you to do a bit of introduction, to let us know what you’re doing in this space and how you’re making an impact.

Caitlin: Sure. Well, I would say, first off, that it is a time of great transitions and adaptation. And I lean into that. I feel like this is a time that is extremely important for people to look at the notion of connection. And my mission in founding MindWise five years ago, and now in working with so much immersive technology and XR collaboration, really the mission that drives me is to empower humanity through connection. So I’m always looking– I have a background in technology and also in learning design, and I’m really looking at that human factor of how do we use technology in ways that empower us. And in terms of that word, “connection”, I’m thinking a lot about that connection inside that we feel when we’re connected with our purpose, with our presence, and also with the values that are underneath what we’re driving in business and in the way that we conduct our life. And also that connection outside, which is with other people, other experiences. I love being able to talk about this topic with you, because there are so many nuances to how that shows up in the world. I would say that I don’t think there’s a clear distinction at this point between business and personal lives, because many people — probably ourselves included, I know myself — there’s not a sharp line between how I’m showing up personally and professionally, because a lot of us are working from home or we’re driven to businesses that actually involve our personal self and our drive.

Julie: Yeah, absolutely. So much has changed in the past couple of– just a matter of couple of weeks. We’re only about three months into this situation that we’re all in, working from home. And maybe just taking that baseline moment to recognize where we are today. So people have been told they have to stay home, they’re working remotely, and now they’re dealing with technology. Let’s call it Zoom, let’s start there. Everybody seems to be logging in to Zoom. And I actually had a great experience today, hearing my mother — who’s 76 years old — manage to coordinate her own Zoom call with her tai-chi ladies. And this was after a couple of weeks of frustration from our family, trying to get her set up and do everything remotely. And she managed to to take this on herself. And it just goes to show how everybody is going to have to transform into using digital technologies. And what does it take for somebody to become comfortable enough and human enough to be able to open up and engage in this digital technology from many different purposes? From my mom’s personal side of things, to work where transactions are taking place. What is it going to take for us to become immersed in that technology, to trust it enough to be able to be productive and to have our points heard? Maybe we can talk about that. Where do we even start? And that’s the importance of presence that we’re here talking about it today.

Caitlin: I’d love to talk about that. I’m smiling ear to ear, hearing the story of your mom. I think it’s not exclusive that you might consider yourself either tech savvy. I think right now is a really raw time. But you can flip that intimidation, maybe, that some of these platforms or mediums might have caused in the past into a curiosity, where maybe some people are also experiencing that, that we have greater compassion for each other as we encounter these new forms. And as your mom starts to use Zoom, suddenly it brings people together and the experience itself doesn’t have to be glossy and perfect. I think it’s been a beautiful time for people using things for the first time and saying, “Oh, I had some things that worked, and some things that didn’t work.” And communities have been people that I know have been really generous with each other and sometimes talking each other through the troubleshooting. And I think a lot of us who pilot businesses, we’re used to doing that rapid prototyping, are used to having that lean method of trying to iterate upwards and hitting some roadblocks along the way. But that– to me, that associates a lot with mindfulness and how you try to stick with curiosity over an impulse to judge and to be a harsh critic of ourselves. So, yeah, I love that story.

Julie: Yeah. I had a conversation with somebody yesterday, on how there’s been this big gallop towards getting there and getting people connected and opening up Zoom. And that intimidation of digital technology can be overwhelming for anybody at any age. And getting them there is one thing, being able to sign in, to create that log in, these are these little steps that where us as humans rebuild that relationship with technology that becomes part of us, and we build a relationship with our technology, and we become more and more comfortable with it. Just within a matter of hours, my mom’s sending me a message saying, “I’m fine, dear. I just finished my Zoom calls with the ladies.” And saying it like it was nothing. And already my mom now has this relationship with technology that she didn’t have last week. She was so stressed, to the point where we were almost in tears. And we had backup solutions, of course, but she managed it on her own. So it’s– what is it going to take for that comfort level of people, so that they can relax and embrace that next step of transformation, really?

Caitlin: When we talk about it on a micro-scale and it could– I mean, this is also a case where the same idea could be applied to business and spatial technology. One of my mentors, Howard Rheingold, he’s a collaborator and he often says, “I’m not the expert. The expert in the room is usually the room.” And digital literacy is not singular. I often say “digital literacies”, because we’re talking about everything from what you and I talk about, the emotional intelligence factor, how we’re present. Yes, using the technology and knowing how to log in is one thing, knowing how to choose your avatar. But then it’s kind of a question of experience design. And that’s where I describe myself as an experienced designer and an architect of experience, because there are thoughtful choices that we’re making along the way. And presence is one of those anchors how we intentionally set ourselves up to be the most present in the experiences. It’s not arbitrary. And to me, it’s part of the digital literacy skillset that points to the future of how we can work, and stay human, and stay connected, and not lose our humanity in the process.

Julie: And some of the work that we’re doing together and that you’re writing for us as well in the XR Collaboration Resource Guide And Directory. We’re now talking about all these different platforms where we can meet and make these things happen and have these communications between one another, that can increase productivity, develop a project, construct a design, or create a design. And there’s all these different factors that now take place inside these platforms that allow us to become more human and allow– or allow us to put up the walls, looking from the other perspective. But they allow us to engage with these conversations using this technology. And there’s a term that I know we’ve talked about before, “humanics”, and that relates back to what you were saying, just on being able to understand the digital side, and know that they’re someone– that you’re logging in, that you’re engaging with people, but understanding that the technology does play a part in that role.

Caitlin: And the word “meaning” is actually coming up in my mind right now, because we can certainly create scenarios and we can create a lot of great business uses. But to give something a sense of context and meaning is a human skill. And I think that the more we empower people to feel both comfortable with the materials and with the technology itself, the more people can really focus on their sense of empowerment, creativity, and imagination. That’s part of what I love about the XR environments, because there’s greater accessibility, there’s actually greater ability to interchange. You can collaborate in ways that you cannot in quote-unquote, “real life”. But I would say that– well, we talk about this a lot in the in the collaboration document, what makes something real? What makes something a genuine experience? And usually it’s that I’m fully aware, invested, and part of it. And I think there are qualities to this collaborative experience that you can have in XR that I would argue are more real, and really kind of beyond what people might imagine. In the document, there are lots of examples and cases, where people can start to dive in and visualize how it could help them and how it could augment the experiences that they already have in their life and in their business.

Julie: And this is something that you also help people with through your consultation strategies. And it’s not just for business. It’s not just for personal. This is a leadership trait of being able to also encourage your team and your colleagues to be able to engage using this digital technology. And that’s a transformation, too.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I started to write Mindful by Design, this book that came out last year. I started writing it about three years ago, based on some of the neuroscience research I’d been doing and some of the learning strategies. And I really wanted people to feel that they had access to some of this compelling research showing how do we learn best, think best, and get over some of the blocks that we might be experiencing in learning worlds and leadership worlds, where there is a lot of decision making on the fly. And I bring that up because it led me to explore some of the ways that VR and XR are special in allowing people to feel fully immersed in an experience and also to have lower inhibition. So that’s really interesting, because now I’m working on a second book about to come out, that has to do with presence, and leadership, and learning, and also how to design experiences. Knowing some of this research that points to some of the best considerations, but also taking your own personal strategies and making it something that’s personal to you. So that’s ultimately why the first book, I called it “Mindful by Design”, because people were telling me, “Well, I’ve been on a retreat to learn more about presence and mindfulness, but I don’t have time for that when I start my workday. I have to then focus on my KPIs, and I have to focus on all of the achievements.” And I was thinking, well, it’s not binary. The choice to be aware is embedded in every moment. And you get to be the designer of your experience if you have certain tools and techniques to practice.

Julie: That’s so important, to be part of that journey. And I don’t think you and I, we– one of the first times we met was actually in VR. You were in Hubs. And I– it’s part of that moment where you have to be present in order for that experience to be successful, to reach the ultimate experience of what is supposed to be. That’s why we’re having this conversation, because we want everybody to learn about the importance of presence and that you can’t just brush it off and say, “I’m going to do it only three or four times a week” or “I’m only going to study it once a week.” It’s a daily practice, and it does tie into healthy mindset and the health benefits of knowing who you are when you go into these spaces, because you are now going to be tracked — shall we say — or evaluated a lot more, because of the technology that’s going to be able to trace those feelings, to be able to evaluate the transactions that you will have between people as well. So you have to have this, the right mindset to be prepared to be embraced that way. Once you enter into this technology, it’s a very interesting approach that people will have and translate them. Is there any experience that you’ve had that you’ve seen or you’ve converted somebody?

Caitlin: Well, it’s interesting. I found myself fascinated by this talk, too, because as we’re talking, if anyone’s listening and they’re thinking, “Oh, this term ‘presence’, it seems very abstract.” It might show up in some ways that are abstract. But the idea of intentional awareness is really what I’m talking about. And that notion of being there and being in an experience. And I see the paradoxes. We’re talking about it right now because, of course, with different platforms and — let’s say, for example — virtual reality, you might have an avatar that you’re choosing, and you might feel that your goal is to lose yourself in the experience. And that loss of self-conscious inhibition could be part of what brings you greater curiosity and imagination. So the key here, if we’re talking about presence coupled with identity, there’s plasticity. This process is really good for the brain, because we’re trying to build meaning. And you have an adaptive mindset by nature when you’re entering a VR experience, because you’re trying to both problem solve, and it could be as simple as figure out what the physical environment is, or the simulated environment when you’re inside a space. There’s so many different dynamics. I’ve worked on projects that take that premise of presence, and I’ve built applications where the focus is on relationship building. And people come in and it could be a project team or it could be people meeting for the first time. And in a virtual space, we’re able to go even deeper and do more with people about how you interface with others that might be from different backgrounds, different languages, sometimes, different cultures. But how you might problem solve and communicate across barriers. And you put that into a gamified situation and suddenly people start to problem solve in really creative ways. And they’ve told me afterwards that some of the situations, they have smiles across their faces. These are applications that I’ve done with business leaders and also with learning groups. So that’s one aspect. Another project I’ve worked on, I’ve been the creative storyteller, an experience designer, for an application that involved health and wellness, specifically for adolescents who are dealing with depression. So we were looking at the application in XR that might be able to help. And it has great trials right now, assessing some of the feedback and some of the statistics. This is an epidemic that used to be kind of silent. And now a lot of people are looking and saying, “Well, how could a virtual experience help someone connect and help them focus on wellbeing and help them articulate both suffering and experiences of joy?” So I bring that up very specifically and people who want to talk more about it, I’d love it if you could get in touch with me, because in addition to all of this, I’m constantly also thinking about how how these experiences lead to better active imagination, that are creative capacity. So a lot of times the experience does have a benefit and then it takes away some of the pain points. But then the bonus is, you’re left at the end feeling more rejuvenated and connected. And then people have responded and said the following week they had these great ideas that just came to them, or they had a greater feeling of inspiration, an ability to ideate a new way, based on what I call “filling your wellspring”. You meet that basic human need that a lot of us overleap when we go into new technology, and then suddenly you are more capable and more creative.

Julie: In all of our conversations — I know you have many different conversations, I have many different ones — and from so many different perspectives, benefits and ways to enhance a positive change in people and behaviors and things like that. There’s so many different ways to look at this. And it’s overwhelming for me, listening to– to think about the above and beyond a digital presence. And technology now, obviously, with adolescents just from an entertainment point of view. Being able to use this technology to have them check in and become present in their learning capacity. I think this is where the technology is going to hold a superpower to help adolescents learn and become engaged, because they’re able to become present. And it comes back to the presence factor and the fact that they can check in with a gamified application, or just to being able to have the teacher monitor the progress. And there’s so many coming back to that, being able to check in and immerse themselves into these experiences. That potential there is huge.

Caitlin: And reflection. They’re able to have — especially for people who are maybe being introverted — where I know there are new programs. All different types of users that might have — in a traditional situation — just felt either uninvited or shut down. Now there are so many reflective tools, and augmented assistance from AI that can better empower us and inform us. Users are not just passively along for the ride in an XR environment. They get to both drive their experience and also reflect about it, because they start to see along the way “There are tools and I’m recognized. My voice is heard.” I think it’s just amazing. It’s very empowering. And I think we’re at the threshold. You said the word “transformation” at the beginning of this conversation together. And I just–Well, how can it transform what we value most? Because we’re not just in an experience, we’re also absorbing it, and it’s a process. So I think this notion of– both of us are so passionate about this work right now. So I think that’s what’s driving us, this idea of building a better human future, using this technology.

Julie: Well, I think that is a really good way to try and wrap up this particular conversation. And I know you have some great things happening this week for yourself. And when we do launch this podcast, I know that the same day you’re also hosting a session. Do you want to tell everybody about the session that you’re holding on Thursday?

Caitlin: Sure. I’m holding a session on Thursday in Altspace. I’ve been doing different group sessions on the platform ENGAGE and also in Altspace. And this Thursday, I’m focusing on grounding, presence, and creative capacity. Everybody is invited. It has an open setting, where– that’s one of the benefits of Altspace: the bar to entry is very low, so people can jump in and sign up. You have to register in advance. But I co-designed the environment to be something that also informs the practices. So I’ll be leading the first hour of this two hour experience that focuses on exercises for well-being. But I’m really thinking about grounding being one of the key elements, because we all need to get some ground these days.

Julie: Absolutely. And if you can close us off, Caitlin, with a couple of suggestions for listeners on steps to take, or some mindfulness recognition, observations, steps that they can take at home. What does it take to become present?

Caitlin: It’s a good time to ask that, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot, writing this book. So I would say, stay tuned if you love this topic, and join my website community, because I’ll be sharing a lot about presence. Then the first– I guess just responding in the moment to thinking about this, the idea of presence and showing up to an experience means also that there’s a playful exercise that involves trying to see things with fresh eyes. So I invite people just to take a moment and try to really focus on one thing. And if you have a window nearby, maybe that one thing is connected to nature. Since nature is a great reminder of both presence and this notion of adaptation in the moment. You know, I know a lot of us might think, “Oh, I’ve seen the same thing a million times,” but actually, how is that thing that you’re looking at? For example, I’m looking at a tree out of my window. How is it different? Maybe how does it feel to look at it, and think about the fact that we’re in a transition point right now? Maybe where you are, like me, we’re in the northern hemisphere and it’s getting hotter. Maybe that tree has leaves that have been changing. It’s a simple exercise. But what you’re doing is you’re noticing both the difference in your view day by day and also that this thing that you’re looking at is not just the category of tree. It’s a very special individual tree. And as humans, when we start to just notice the difference, one exercise would actually be to then take the practice deeper and sketch the tree once a week for a succession of four weeks, and see if there are any changes. There’s an art of noticing. It’s actually a brain practice that when you take time to focus like that, and it could be a tree, it could be your child in the morning when you see them for the first time, you start to recognize that, oh, sometimes we take this moment for granted and we just compartmentalize it into something we’ve experienced many times before. But actually this moment of intention is the only one. And it’s the only one that actually gives us power over having this experience as something that is ours. In a very philosophical way, but also down to something very simple. It elevates me to a spirit of gratitude, because I start to see actually that’s true. And when a person shows up and I’m encountering that person for the first time, that’s also an opportunity for me to listen, and to be present, and to actually absorb and endorse what will show up in the moment that I cannot predict. But I can hold space for it. It surprises people when you start to do that.

Julie: It’s almost like the importance of presence and what you get back in return is just an abundance of overwhelming joy and gratitude. And it gives back.

Caitlin: It’s kind of like sending the rough edges of your mind.

Julie: Absolutely. Well, that’s a great way to finish off that podcast, Caitlin. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Caitlin: We always have conversations that spring up in the moment. Yeah, deep gratitude for this time together.

Julie: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining me, Caitlin. My name is Julie Smithson and this is the XR for Learning podcast. Thanks, everybody, for joining.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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