What is an immersive environment?
Close your eyes.
Try to recall the dream you had last night. Were you inside or outside? Were you active or simply waiting for something? Were you somewhere recognizable and familiar, or were you somewhere otherworldly?
An immersive environment shares many similarities to experiencing a dream because you are experiencing that environment first hand, as if you were really a part of a new world. The difference between your dreams and a true VR space is that in VR you now have the capability of living in a world created by someone else’s vision. Your dreams may be your own, but now you can experience the dreams of someone else, anyone else.
Theater in history
Theater was our original stage in which we explored the dreams, the fantasies, the stories created by strangers. The format of theater performances changed drastically based on different cultures and different time periods, but always there was a desire to capture the audience in the moment. By plunging headfirst into the illusion on stage, audience members lost themselves in the process, and a connection deeper than spoken words was formed. This was a powerful moment, catharsis en masse, and so became something universally sought around the world despite surface level differences in culture and taste.
Theater, up until relatively modern times, was an interactive experience, with audience members signaling their feelings and engaging with the actors on stage. Shakespearean theater was originally performed ‘in the round’, where audiences surrounded a stage, allowing for a multifaceted performance playing with perspective and line of site. Varying techniques developed to enhance the story and draw out the moment when trembling audience members suspended their disbelief, and submitted to the moment.
Unfortunately, this interactive element to live performance was overshadowed by the mass appeal created by television and radio. Thousands could now passively participate in a story without leaving their homes, no longer a part of the community of audience members sharing an experience. This shift in audience engagement lead to the development of whole new story telling disciplines and technologies, all ultimately aimed at seeking that same moment where fantasy became the reality in the eyes of an observer.
The elements of engagement
If audience engagement from both more passive mediums like television and radio, as well as more active mediums like theater and live performance can cause audiences to suspend disbelief, what elements are fundamental to this feeling of engagement?
I believe there are three essential elements to any story (as opposed to the often quoted 5 Elements) which captures the imagination.
- Catharsis – A synthesis of Setting, Plot and Theme
Conflict is a natural state of being for all of us as humans. It can be represented externally as a conflict between individuals or groups, but also it can be represented internally when our own perceptions of the world do not measure up to what we are objectively experiencing. We all face conflict throughout our daily lives, whether we express or are even aware of these conflicts, and so a story which does not contain an element of conflict has no hope of retaining our attention.
Character is critical because it gives us something to relate to. Characters are models of ourselves, whether highly stylized and ritualized as is the case in many traditional casts from Chinese and Japanese theater, or more realistic and based on the types of individuals we come across in our own lives. Character represents the qualities we find in ourselves and our immediate loved ones, both the warmly familiar alongside the terrifyingly grotesque. If there is no human character to a story, we cannot simply emotionally engage.
Catharsis is a much deeper expression attempting expressing how we ultimately purge or cleanse emotion through the intensity of a shared feeling. We have a cathartic experience when place ourselves ‘into the shoes’ of the character on stage. We are creatures of our environment however, and we cannot make this connection when the environment itself does not match the mood being set. That leads to the final elements of story where we build our world, meaning, setting, plot, and ultimately, theme. When our world where a story takes place is believable, we can emotionally parallel the characters and conflicts that take place within. Where balance is upset, in that the emotional effort needed to identify with a character in a story outweighs the voice of our own personal common sense, we disbelieve the situation; our moment of fantasy is lost, ultimately leaving us feeling unsatisfied.
4th Wall Blues- Reminders that we are only pretending
The 4th wall -- the barrier between an audience and the story unfolding before and around us -- is a critical boundary. When we are reminded that we are only seeing a story, that we do not picture ourselves in the moment, we immediately lose the emotional impact of what is being presented. Many, many aspects of performance can break this barrier of engagement.
"It's good to be the King" History of the World Pt. 1, from the master Mel Brooks
Most importantly, we do not want to remind the audience that they are being shown a story. We want them to place themselves into that story so that everything else fades away, and they live in the moment. Technology and tools are the biggest problem, where our tools for engagement are not used carefully, they create unexpected distance between the audience and actor, breaking any connection that may have been built. Only break the 4th wall when you intend, never by accident.
Achieving true immersion in storytelling
For VR, the magic presented by the medium is that the barrier between audience and actor can be reduced to its lowest possible threshold to date. Somewhat ironically, this is made possible by advancements in technology and tools which in many ways are far more complicated than anything that has reached mass market appeal thus far.
In VR, your perspective on story can be as intimate as desired. This may make some audiences uncomfortable at first as they are forced to emotionally connect with someone else’s world. Overtime however, the connection is established despite the nature of the story.
Interaction is a critical part of this, and is the major distinguishing factor between 360 video and fully interactive VR environments. The challenge with interaction however is in the tools themselves. How controls function, how you move within your environment, and what you are supposed to do within someone else’s world must be carefully planned and guided. If it is not, then frustration sets in quickly, and the 4th wall is broken.
True immersion in an environment must be intuitive, which means giving us the flexibility to react to our environment on instinct. Despite what you may think, this intuitive response can be achieved with the level of technology we have available now, but it must be carefully designed into any experience. Numerous examples exist from the last year which show how easily one can lose oneself in a VR environment when controls are well integrated into an experience, as well as when controls are poorly considered.
Buying in to the experience
If you have ever read a novel and found yourself lost in the pages then you are capable of immersion as I’ve discussed it. If you have ever watched a particularly engaging film and then had a dream about it that night, you are experiencing the type of immersion storytellers have aspired to from the earliest human memories. VR is simply the next step in this medium where we can tell our tales. It is not simply a technology, and certainly not a gimmick. The foundations of VR storytelling have the power to make future platforms like the ‘Holodeck’ on Star Trek TNG an engaging reality. Now is simply the first step in our historical journey to better live the fantasy we desire.