Immersive experiences simulate our senses in order to create an illusion that transports us to another place and situation. Immersion should be realistic, engaging and satisfying. It can be experienced in different fields, it doesn’t occur only when you put on a VR headset.
Whether we are playing a video game on our smartphone, watching a movie at the cinema or about to ride Space Mountain, we are dealing with immersive experiences. Designing experiences that are able to lead users to reach full immersion is all about reaching a fine balance between technology, details, suspense and several other factors.
Walt Disney is considered by many as one of the first UX designers. I believe that at least regarding mainstream culture this is true. He focused on designing a park from a kid’s point of view. He put himself in children’s shoes and reinvented storytelling in order to get visitors immersed in an unknown experience.
The park has underground private tunnels that visitors are never able to see, these tunnels are for park employees to move freely from one place to another, go to lunch or leave the park without breaking the storytelling. Of course, catching two fake Mickeys and one Snow White having pizza for lunch or a House of Terror employee enjoying an ice cream in Magic Kingdom’s Castle is a bummer.
The same thing happens at Universal Studios. The park is designed in a circular way and employees can move around the outer ring and go “on stage” at the right time and place without having to overcome any obstacles. The experience’s backstage must be completely invisible to the visitor. One insignificant error or omission will put truthfulness at stake and will make the whole experience crumble.
To respect storytelling in theme parks, employees must stay in character at all times. Although most of their main tasks may be to dispatch carts in roller coasters or check if the guests’ seat belts are on, they need to be aware that they are working in a place where a certain story is being told. Every detail is important while trying to get visitors immersed in a certain story. Games can last only 3 to 5 minutes but every detail surrounding the experience must be taken care of. Music, smell, employees, the building and even the gift shop must enhance the storytelling.
You can find several examples of immersive design experiences. The recently announced plans of building a Star Wars inspired resort for Walt Disney World Hotel is one of them. It promises to be an authentic Star Wars Story. Even the guests’ journey through space will start when everyone departs together for a multiday adventure boarding a starship with characters and stories that unfold all around them during the voyage.
And it isn’t just theme parks, Google’s Creative Lab and theatre company Sandpit premiered in 2016 a theatre work called Ghosts, Toast and Things Unsaid in which the audience can find special mobile audio technology that allow them to tune in to the inner thoughts of the actors as they walk through a 360° set.
Another interesting case is an award-winning immersive theatrical experience we’ve recently watched called Sleep No More. A play that takes place in The McKittrick in New York City a hotel that was built in 1939 and supposed to be the finest and most decadent luxury hotel but two days after the World War II outbroke was left locked. Sleep No More is a site-specific telling of Shakespeare’s classic Scottish tragedy: Macbeth. In it, audiences can move freely through this world at their own pace. The promenade lasts three hours and all guests are required to wear a mask while inside the hotel.
They give you no map and minimal instructions. There is no right or wrong, there’s just experience. You could probably spend many days attending to the hotel and find new ways to live through the play. You can pick out a single character and chase the performer while him or her runs, dances or walks around the place. Dressed in Deco-era evening clothes, sexy lingerie or nothing at all, the characters include Macbeths, Macduff and his wife, Duncan, witches and hotel employees.
The sound in every room matches mood and atmosphere perfectly. It includes 30s pop recordings, techno music and suspenseful Bernard Herrmann scores for Hitchcock movies. Sleep No More make us feel complicit in invasion of private lives and ugly deaths with a sense of guilty pleasure. Nothing seems not even slightly off set. It’s just perfect. You live the experience and it gets you all caught up.
Immersive Experiences may occur while using user interfaces such as gestures and voice interactions, or at the cinema in an oniric environment, that’s to say, interactions that are provided by devices based on context.
UX Designers build digital products in the same way Walt Disney built Disney World. Logistics and technical details must be invisible so that whatever you are working on runs smoothly. Users should just be able to see Cinderella at the right time, in the right castle with the right prince without noticing the hundreds of hours of hard work behind that ephemeral moment. Illusion can never crack if you want your project to be successful.
Users need to feel suspense. Designers have to generate great expectations and give users tiny hints without revealing too much of what they’ll find later on.Rules matter. Even if they are minimum they will allow us to establish some boundaries that will help to feed their imagination. You need to give the audience something to do in order for them to get lost in experience. This rule will tell them who they are or how they should relate to others during the immersion.You don’t need to make everything completely simple and easy. The commitment and energy the user puts into living a certain experience needs to be rewarded. Sometimes we focus too much on making everything easy peasy and we forget that users are curious. Audiences like to learn, explore, discover and solve situations. You have to find a balance between interesting and useful.Let the audience make decisions. Once you’ve created a space that is different from daily life, allow your visitors to engage with it in a meaningful way. They are your protagonists.Keep the illusion alive. The experience the user goes through is the tip of an iceberg. By all means don’t let them know what’s exactly underwater. They may imagine or draw some conclusions but you cannot let it show. You are inviting the user into another world, you need to be a great host.Lists. Create a list of every element you need within the experience you are designing and describe how will it have to be customized in order to be the perfect fit.Details, details, details. Put in the users shoes, test, don’t rely just on words to build the storytelling. Audiences crave sensory richness. The little things are what bring storytelling to life.