Whether you’re throwing a corporate event or building a virtual reality game, creating an experience that truly immerses an audience is no easy feat. I spoke to writers, game designers, immersive theater producers, and others on the forefront of experience design and asked them all the same question: What do you think is the secret to creating an immersive experience or world? Here are their top tips.
Use Details To Make Your World Feel Big And Alive
“Pay attention to the details. The little, transformative things are what bring a setting to life, and if they ring false, they can jar the viewer/player/reader right back into the real world. For example, when I wrote my first Halo novel, I included a passage about how warm and familiar the sun’s radiation felt on the narrator’s skin when he returned to his home planet, compared to all the other worlds on which he’d been fighting aliens. One of the writers at 343 Industries, which now produces the Halo games, called out how he loved that bit because it anchored the character and made the story feel much more real to him.”
— Matt Forbeck, game designer and author of books such as Halo: New Blood, which builds off the game franchise’s expanded fictional universe.
“Create a list of every element within the party and design it to your vision. We make a big list of elements within the party then customize each to suit our theme. How are the waiters dressed? How are the guests dressed? What sort of drinks are you putting in their hands? What is the food and how does it look? To throw a truly fantastic event you have to customize every element to your satisfaction.”
–Adam Aleksander, New York-based experiential event designer.
“When you’re creating an immersive experience you’re inviting someone into another world, you want to be a good host. That means providing a sense of place, and a sense of a world beyond that place. Audiences crave a sense that the portion of the world they get to see and explore is part of something larger, even if they never see it. This is as true for an immersive environment that never leaves a small room, or an epic feature film. If a breeze is coming from somewhere in the virtual space – the human audience knows that there’s a world with wind and gravity out there subconsciously. We all crave these details to understand the world around us, it’s satisfying and exciting to explore these worlds. To make a truly transportive experience, audiences crave the sensory richness we would find in the real world around us–not only visually–but in the care and attention to sound, scale and the imagined world off-stage.”
-Caitlin Burns, COO of Datavized, an immersive design and technology lab specializing in WebVR and data visualization. She currently serves as Vice Chair of the Producers’ Guild of America’s New Media Council and East Coast Co-Chair of the PGA Women’s’ Impact Network.
-Gabriel Rhoads, co-founder of BBQ Films, a New York-based event production company that specializes in immersive cinema.
-Michael Rau, co-founder of the narrative technology company Wolf 359, and co-creator of “Temping”, an interactive installation performed at the 53rd Lincoln Center Film Festival.
-Byron Laviolette, Creative Director of The Mission, an experience design agency based in Toronto. He also holds a Ph.D. in Interactivity and Play Theory.
Use Limitations To Your Advantage
“If you’re putting on an event, think about the unusual characteristics surrounding your venue, then devise a way to best utilize these atypical circumstances. Some of the most creative expressions are born from having to circumnavigate a limitation with the venue. here are times when I’ve devised an entire map-point system with actors simply because I didn’t know how else to get people to find the venue. Another time, there was an elevator that we didn’t know what to do with, so we hired an actor to steal people from the party for a 1-on-1 storytelling experience.”
–Adam Aleksander, New York-based experiential event designer.
Let The Audience Make Decisions
“Be generous with the amount of agency you give your audience. Once you’ve created a space that is different from daily life, allow your visitors to engage with it in a meaningful way. Adults carry with them the innate desire we all experienced as children: to play and to pretend. This is not a childish desire, but a human desire. Where do audiences want to be transported? In some ways, we want to go to a place that feels new and exciting, but perhaps what we want more is to be present and experience our true self.”
-Andrew Hoepfner, creator of the immersive theatrical production Houseworld.
“The unparalleled sense of presence that VR provides has lead the audience to question their agency within the worlds they explore. Choice is no longer enough. Let go of traditional narrative and experiment with emergent storytelling. This will become increasingly important as the Maker Generation matures with this new medium.”
-Stefan Grambart, Creative Director of Secret Location, whose past projects include the Sleepy Hollow VR Experience for Fox TV.
Create A Space That People Can Project Themselves Into
“For a world to be truly immersive, you have to leave it unfurnished, and without wallpaper. This flies in the face of the unwavering trajectory towards 360-degree construction. But I’m talking about the invisible stuff. The walls no one else see. The armchair in the corner with the childhood cat that nobody notices. The laughter that shakes free a piece of mental chewing gum that has been stuck in your hairy memory for decades. It doesn’t matter if it is a book where words trigger detailed mind films, or if it is a contraption filling your vision with undulating panoramas, or it is an installation with kettles and faxes and hands to touch. If the player’s self isn’t imported into the world, it’s all paper thin. They have to project themselves into it in some way. They need to hear their breath in order for it to be alive.”
“For a successful immersive experience, put your audience at the center of the work, and think about it from their user perspective. If the audience is made the protagonist, they will see the most meaning and relevance for themselves. They don’t have to role play, but the work will serve as a Rorschach for them and create layers of meaning in the space that you allow for their agency and interpretations.”
-Tom Pearson, co-artistic director at Third Rail Projects, which puts on immersive theatrical and dance productions that include Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise.