In VR we talk a lot about immersive experiences and how to achieve immersion. What is an immersive experience? How can we define an immersive experience from real world to virtual?
Being immersed involves becoming so absorbed by an activity or environment that it becomes the new reality. The audience, players, readers or participants are a part of this new world. Between one reality and the next, immersion is one and the same. It’s a fundamental quality and a measurement of what is a good VR experience.
Writers, game designers, and immersive theater producers share the common intention of creating an experience where an audience can journey into another world from sentences on a page or 2D images, to the extent of delivering an entirely new physical reality within the existing one. Immersion unifies all these art forms, with our imagination filling in the 360 world that the author, painter or speaker describes.
VR and AR are nascent technologies, specifically for consumer adoption. While gamified pixels, books and theater were the immersive productions of an earlier generation, this era of digital natives has greater expectations.
In 1939 The McKittrick Hotel was constructed with the intention of becoming New York’s finest hotel. Weeks before opening and with the commencement of World War II, the hotel doors were permanently shut.
Today, the five story hotel takes on the exterior appearance of a NYC luxury low-rise, with an interior that shares the likeness of an early 20th century abandoned home after years of use as a squat or warehouse.
Restored, to some extent, the space has been transformed into a multilevel stage by Emurisve and Punchdrunk to present Sleep No More- an immersive theater tied loosely to Shakespeare’s MacBeth.
Arriving an hour early, as recommended to enjoy the rooftop garden before entering the hotel as a guest for the evening, each guest is donned a mask. We become the audience, but also a character, free to roam the five level narrative as we please.
The role of the audience is clear. We watch, and when invited, we participate- taking the extended hand of a dancer in the ballroom to be pulled in for a brief waltz before the scene transitions and the actors split. Downstairs? Upstairs? Left, right or any other direction? Do we follow the man covered in blood or the suspicious women with a black dress, the pregnant lady or the smiling man? The audience scatters, and those left behind must find their own place in the narrative.
Dashing through or pausing in various rooms, sometimes it’s the contents of the hotel itself that are intriguing. The actors and crowds can be found another time. One member of the audience digs into a sand filled jar and extracts a key. They open a previously locked door and disappear into another part of the hotel. The die-hard fan has been rewarded with a hidden treasure. The narrative has been tried and true for replayability.
All over the hotel letters, books, clothes, medicines, booze, lights, dry ice and wandering audience or dancing actors create this incredible sense of atmosphere.
Three hours after entering the hotel, an actor this group follows suddenly runs out to enter the main bar, signaling that the night as a guest at The McKittrick Hotel has come to an end.
This immersive experience was VR without the headset. It was a virtual reality, and immersive story with non-linear and liner dynamics, exploration, world building, multi-player and multi-sensory. There’s a reason why people seek out experiences such as Sleep No More, for the adventure, for the story, the detail- it satisfies the dynamics of a good social and interactive narrative.
Making a decision to partake, discover, follow, lead and explore empowers the audience in this adventure- no one is a ghost in this new world. Almost worse than not acknowledging an audience, is to give them no value at all. Here at The McKittrick Hotel, there is freedom to roam throughout- to create your own story.
Day to day no two people experience something in the exact same way. Even in a 360 video, two users will see and experience different parts of the story, will notice different things and infer different meanings.
While today’s audience is content to have basic choices and interactions, tomorrow’s audience will demand the ability to narrate their own adventure as active participants.
Looking at early video games, these were an evolution of cinema where the audience demanded more of the storyteller, and more of the creatives. Despite highly pixelated resolutions, early video games such as Broken Sword used beautifully constructed cinematic preludes to slowly bring the player into the new world. A step-by-step immersion to connect where they are in the real world- to draw them into this new space.
Video was for a passive audience, and games were for an active audience. While early arcade games were available in the 70’s, it took years for video to combine sequences with gaming to extend these digital and interactive narratives.
Further back than video games, is simple print, photographs, and posters. “The first photograph to appear on a poster did so only after the technique had been available for 80 years…” (History of the Poster)*. It takes time to transition from one medium to another, to learn new story telling mediums and methods, and to make these experiences feel organic. Can we compare the photograph and the poster to the idea of combining the real and virtual worlds to make a total environment?
How can immersive experiences in VR draw from the best techniques of cinema, theater, and literature to bring a new type of experience to audiences around the world? How can we combine extended virtual and real world experiences? The audience is at the center of this journey with us to explore new types of atmospheric and immersive storytelling guided by the creators.
By Anne McKinnon
“The first photograph to appear on a poster did so only after the technique had been available for 80 years.”