Our 10 Trends for 2014 report explores the rise of Immersive Experiences: the idea that entertainment, narratives and brand experiences will become more immersive and altogether more enveloping in a bid to capture consumers’ imagination and attention. Frank Rose, who spent most of the past decade as a contributing editor at Wired, explores this concept in his 2011 book, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. He talked to us about what’s driving Immersive Experiences and some rules of thumb for creating them. For more, see a related post on Rose’s Deep Media blog.
“Immersive” is a term that’s thrown around pretty easily—sometimes it’s used interchangeably with “interactive.” How do you define an immersive experience?
It involves forgetting everything else—forgetting where you are and who you are and everything that you’re doing except for whatever kind of experience you’re having or story you’re experiencing. It’s something people have done forever, the idea of immersing themselves in stories. [But] today we tend to think of immersiveness in terms of virtual reality and that sort of thing.
When I started on the book, I didn’t really understand it myself, and that’s actually why I wanted to do the book. I had a general sense that the way we were telling stories was starting to change in response to the Internet and to digital technology in general, including video games and the like. And by the time I published the book in early 2011, I felt like I had a handle on what was happening and was able to put a framework around it, and to show how lots of seemingly different things were all tied together.
What’s driving the increase in these immersive experiences? Is it technology?
I think people’s expectations are changing as a result of the Internet. Audiences develop new kinds of expectations in response to the technologies we adopt. Part of the revolution in audience expectations is that we’re not just passive consumers anymore; we don’t just sit on the sofa and take whatever comes our way. And so the fact that as a member of the audience you’re more a participant than a consumer is a very important part of that. It’s not the only part, but it’s increasingly critical.
The phenomenal success of Sleep No More in New York is a perfect example of that. It’s been playing for nearly three years, sold out every night with zero advertising. Felix Barrett, who created [the show], came to feel that whenever you walk into a theater, all your expectations are deadened. You sit in your seat, and you wait for the curtain to come up, and you watch whatever happens in front of you, and that’s it. To him it’s much more exciting and involving to have the action take place all around you and to in some way or another be part of that experience.
We can expect a lot more experimentation in this regard. People have an entirely different relationship with their entertainment, especially younger people. They don’t want to just sit there and watch it anymore.
The virtual-reality headset the Oculus Rift represents a very new kind of immersive experience. Does it live up to the hype?
It’s probably pretty close to the kind of virtual reality experience that people were talking about in the late ’80s and early ’90s that never really materialized because, obviously, the technology wasn’t there yet. Clearly, you can do a lot more now than you could then, or you can do it in a much more convincing way.
There are still limitations to any sort of virtual reality system as it’s imagined now. The most obvious one is your face is encased in this thing, and you’re in this box, so it’s impossible to interact with the real world at the same time that you’re interacting with the virtual experience. But that said, it’s quite convincing. You can certainly have what feels like a visceral experience wearing it.
Are there some basic rules of thumb in terms of creating an immersive experience?
The most fundamental and the most basic factor is there have to be characters you care about and a narrative that brings them alive. When you have that, it really doesn’t matter what the technology is. People still get as immersed in novels today as they did 100 or 200 years ago. Ultimately, you have to be a great storyteller.
That’s the first rule. And the second rule is, you have to use whatever tools are appropriate to tell that story. There’s a lot of interest right now in transmedia. But the problem there is that it’s hard enough to tell a story in any one medium, and there are very, very few people, at least at this point, who understand how to tell a story in a variety of different media.
How blurry is the line between the virtual and the real world?
It is getting blurrier. Augmented reality is one thing that’s blurring that line. Ultimately, augmented reality might prove more compelling than virtual reality in the sense of [putting you] completely in an imaginary role. We are physical creatures, and we do exist in the real world, and if you want to be truly immersed in something, that’s going to mean being immersed in a physical sense in addition to a mental sense.
Obviously we’re a very long way from life-sized holograms, but combined, some of these other technologies could create something like Star Trek’s Holodeck, or an environment that feels almost as immersive as that. But also, that’s the real reason that immersive theatrical experiences like Sleep No More have proved so popular—because technology is a terrific enabler, but ultimately what we want to engage with is other people. And if there’s a way in which technology can amplify that, I think it is going to be very successful.
How should marketers, businesses or other storytellers start looking at these immersive tools?
It’s primarily a question of engagement. People want and typically like brands. They don’t really like advertising very much. But what they do like is to be entertained and engaged, frequently in unexpected ways. Anything that enables you to do that or helps you do that is definitely going to provide an advantage.
In truly immersive experiences, it’s really kind of a spell, and that’s what people want. People want to be taken out of their normal, everyday role and taken to a different place—or to take themselves to a different place, to put it in more participatory terms. And if you can do that using whatever technology is at hand, perhaps that’s a really good definition of success here.