Immersive Experiences: Visions, Spaces & Narratives

When was the last time an action you took in one place transported you to another without moving at all? A painting that mesmerised you to the extent that you felt part of it? A movie that made you feel the characters’ every triumph and anguish? “A dragon turns to ice…and fade to black” that left you screaming at the TV that you’d have to wait a week to find out what happens next (We still can’t let that one go!)

What all these examples demonstrate is the power of a well crafted, immersive experience one which is generally agnostic of medium but heavily reliant on narrative, all of which engage one or more of our senses deeply, leaving a lasting impact. Through this series of essays we attempt to break down and reframe our senses beginning with the sense of sight, but wait a minute that’s not quite true. Simply engaging our sense of sight isn’t enough, what if we used immersive experiences to communicate visions instead? Storytellers are using immersive experiences to take complex ideas, transcending mediums and spaces to communicate larger than life visions.

So, what links sci fi writers, global governments and businesses? The UAE government is classic example of bringing these larger than life visions to life annually, through Dubai’s Museum of the Future. Capstoning the World Government Summit, these enormous walkthrough experiences are designed to give citizens a glimpse into possible futures for the state. A particularly fascinating one from 2017Reimagined a Climate Change Future.

The goal of this project is to make these visions tangible for citizens through immersive experience design, allowing them to experience possible aspects of it, and then translating their experience into choices by voting or commenting to prioritize the UAE government’s investments. Communicating a vision by manifesting it can lead to better engagement allowing us to build a better mental map, leading to better collective decisions.

The technique that we describe above isn’t new or unique, just translated onto a new medium. It is the mainstay of fantasy/sci fi authors over the years. J. K. Rowling, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, created stunning fantasy/sci fi worlds rich in detail and full of nuance simply through the power of words, relying solely on the user’s imagination to manifest their stories and make them immersive experiences. It is a decidedly harder task but it certainly drives home the importance of finding the right balance between the story and the medium.

The common thread between the UAE government’s physical manifestation of their imagined futures and those that J. K. Rowling’s world is that these worlds they build are consistent and follow a certain set of rules that are immediately evident to the person immersed within the experiences. In making the “world” easy to navigate these storytellers, both the experience builders and sci fi authors, are able to make the worlds just familiar enough that the users/readers can immerse themselves into the narrative.

We see this manifest yet again in The Verge’s recently launched Better Worlds series of short stories (video/audio/written) that imagine utopias rather than the dystopias science fiction authors tend to lean towards.

If you read/watch/listen to these stories they aren’t necessarily all happy go lucky utopias as we might imagine them, they all have a slightly realistic twist and bittersweet endings mirroring real life. Based on our todays, these are all tomorrows we can easily imagine ourselves in. This allows us to envision and therefore critically examine the effect of the possible manifestations of societies, situations and technologies illustrated in these stories to understand the possible implications of these otherwise complex systems on their lives. The “user’s/reader’s” investment in the story is key, otherwise the result is just another soulless installation or a story with no staying power. So when you’re trying to translate your vision it is essential to consider what will resonate with your target audience. Famously, the Harry Potter manuscript would never have been published if Bloomsbury’s Nigel Newton had not given the sample pages to his 8 year old daughter to read, remember 8 publishers had already rejected the manuscript, the rest as we know is pop culture.

So, now we know that immersive experiences are about thoughts, visions and the curiosities in between. Irrespective of the medium the user’s journey is always key, getting it right is largely dependant on the narrative power of our story. Now that you have a taste of our thinking, in the coming weeks we will be looking at engaging other senses, with a twist of course, through which we can create a variety of immersive experiences.