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Beyond VR & The Metaverse: A_Framework_To: Immersive Experiences
A_FRAMEWORK_TO is a 3-Part series exploring the role of frameworks in breaking down complex cultural concepts to its parts.
As technological advances compound, VR remains a central — but unfortunate — talking point and symbolic artifact within the Immersive Experience discussion.
But if we’re going all in with immersive experiences for entertainment, work, or the ever-elusive metaverse, we have to think beyond the goggles.
An Immersive Experience (or immersion) can be defined as the perception of being present in a different physical or psychological state than one previously was in.
First thing’s first: Immersion is not new, nor inherently tethered to tech. We have to dispel this myth if we’re to continue down our immersive path. Immersive experiences are as old as the stories we told around our campfires. We can’t comprehend the evolution nor potential of immersion without recognizing how primal this tactic is. Immersion exists — and thrives — without screens too...
With that, there are two components to Immersion (I) to consider:
I1. Sensory Immersion:
What is the tech, visceral experience, and medium employed?
I.e. physical immersion
I2. Emotional Immersion:
What is the content, mental journey, and narrative told?
I.e. psychological immersion
Attention and investment remains over-indexed in the former camp: Sensory. But the latter, Emotional, is the original seed of immersion... and our current opportunity as we look out in a field tangled up in wires.
Note, these two variables absolutely blur. In the future, AI-created aromas (I1) can trigger the most intense memories (I2).
But before envisioning and building what’s next, we need to tease apart more variables. There are two other important differentiations, these regarding Participation (P) and Users (U).
There are two approaches to Participation (P):
P1. Active Immersion:
An interactive experience, which requests or demands
Ex. video games
P2. Passive Immersion:
A predefined experience, which serves or offers
Ex. video game cut-scenes
And for Users (U), there are two paths:
An independent experience
Ex. gaming solo
A shared experience
Ex. gaming with a team or streaming oneself gaming
With these variables defined (I1 & I2, P1 & P2, U1 & U2), there are now multiple permutations of Immersive Experiences which we can build. Also, when we break out each of these variables, we can better categorize and map cultural manifestations...
For example: Passive (P2) + Shared (U2) + Emotional (I2) immersion can be a movie theater experience. For another: Active (P1) + Independent (U1) + Sensory (I1) immersion could be VR Beat Saber.
Again, note they’ll always be some gray areas... These are not explicitly binary labels. All variables inform one another and can exist on a spectrum of intensity. But again, breaking these essential components down allows us to see them as a map or building blocks to what can be created or where white space exists.
Is Me (U1) or We (U2) worthy of investment? Doesn’t matter. Both will have a role in our immersive future. Active (P1) vs. Passive (P2)? Again, it doesn't matter. Both are required.
However, when it comes to Sensory vs. Emotional, it’s Emotional Immersion (I2) that we believe needs some attention. There is currently too much hype around Sensory.
Think: What does a personally tailored song informed by your tastes and biofeedback sound like? How enthralled in a film can we get if we dictate our characters’ fates? What is required to move someone to hysterics, serenity or tears with 100% certainty?
Emotional Immersion doesn’t even have to be a positive mental state. Think of the lust for Scare Houses, which have waitlists of participants willing to be fake kidnapped, horrified and psychologically tortured. That’s radical Emotional Immersion.
How else does radical (positive or negative) Emotional Immersion look, sound and feel like? Why is it harder to imagine these instances than radical Sensory Immersion that we see dreamt up all of the time? (Sex in the future is wild.)
To get to more enthralling Emotional (or Sensory) Immersion, there’s a endless checklist of consumer Needs (N) which await addressing...
Can this transport me to foreign or familiar surroundings?
Can this introduce a new way of perceiving a- or the world?
Can this better me — enhance, educate, strengthen, skill, train?
Can this unlock understanding difficult to obtain otherwise?
Can this let me leverage control in ways difficult elsewhere?
Can this let me become closer to those around me?
This an incomplete list of Needs, but a fundamental starting point for those looking to understand, envision and build.
Lastly, when thinking about immersion, technology helps, but it shouldn’t have the starring role. The experience itself should be prioritized.
According to Adam Walker, Executive Director of Consumer Foresight & Market Exploration at Disney, the space to place bets and where we need to focus is in the “Phygital,” where the physical and digital blur.
“There’s a lot of opportunity when [the technology] becomes invisible.”
Will Hall, Chief Creative Officer at RAIN agrees,
“Digital is very good at trying to replace the physical [...] In China they talk about the thin layer of technology — ‘ubiquitous computing,’ ‘ambient computing.’ All those buzzwords simply mean there isn’t a difference between digital and physical. They are one in the same.”
This cultural concept is not about one or the other. It’s an ‘and.’ Success comes to those who adopt and embrace the ‘and’ in this space. Frameworks help see each of the pieces, but that doesn’t mean you only have to only select one.
Simply, there’s no one way to approach immersion.