Immersion, is it AR/VR or Just R?

The changing composition, structures, wants and desires of our contemporary society underscores why investigating “immersion” is crucial for museums and all public offerings today.  A recent day and a half convening by the American Alliance of Museums, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts, supported by the Knight Foundation and GuidiGo, underscored this lesson via exceptional case studies, hands-on engagement and discussions around the meanings and opportunities facing museums today.  The diversity of examples, from altered physical spaces to virtual reality, left attendees with resources, processes and opportunities to pursue once home.  The good news seems to be that audiences of all ages and backgrounds appear to want to experience art, but the “how” might be different than what has been taught in schools or traditions within institutions. 

What do we really mean when we say an immersive experience?  The Oxford English Dictionary offers three definitions for immersion:

1.     The action of immersing someone or something in a liquid.

2.     Deep mental involvement in something.

3.     The disappearance of a celestial body in the shadow of or behind another.  (a definition primarily used by Astronomers)

For the purpose of a museum or arts experience, the goal seems to be “deep mental involvement in something,” yet in the field (and this convening) the approach mostly considered was the “immersive experience,” the physical approach of immersing someone in an environment  in order to create a deep mental involvement. While I am not convinced that physical immersion is always a necessity, I acknowledge that physical immersion in an experience has been a trending tactic over the past decade or more.  

The key is to understand what is a valid choice to incorporate into your museum or arts space. Data shows that the traditional experience is still valued. A recent Guardian article on “Borderless” — polled its audience and revealed that 55% would prefer non-digital museum experience to Tokyo’s all-digital museum. Furthermore, age does not seem to be a correlating factor to adoption or interest in technology or immersion. The NYT VR offering (including a free Google Cardboard in the Sunday Times delivered) was eagerly adopted by the NYT print subscriber audience – mostly older. The lesson seems to be that museums and arts institutions have to consider providing opportunities for all users via digital and non-digital methods.  The following offers multiple takeaways from the convening to help those considering or curious about immersion via digital or non-digital means. 

Takeaway #1:

Visitor experience must be considered within the process of exhibition design.  A strong resource to use in thinking through this change in approach is Pine and Gilmore’s updated The Experience Economy.  I have been using the book in my work, teaching and consulting since 2001.  While not new, the theories seem to have reached the tipping point in society such that all businesses, from artistic to retail, are recognizing that there are multiple ways of providing a personalized, meaningful experience for patrons entering our establishments, online or in person.

Takeaway #2

Research, prototyping and experimenting are necessary steps to building an exhibit or experience that provides a sense of immersion.   If you decide to try VR or AR, work in browser solutions first, like ARBrowser or VRBrowser.

Takeaway #3

Emotional connection is a key component to immersion. Without an emotional connection, interest (ergo deep meaning) disappears. 

Takeaway #4

Audience agency in action and thought are necessary design components.  Example:  Meow Wolf:  “Don’t force the user to be anything other than who they are.”  Therefore immersive world building must provide unlimited viewpoints.

Takeaway #5

The 3-stage structure of Experience Economy or Immersive Theatre is the structure of creating an immersive experience.  First, prime the visitor by establishing the frameworks and rules of behavior in a way that actively involves their learning (not a list of rules but an introduction space, experience or narrative that outlines what to expect). Second, provide a free-flowing experience where all users have agency to investigate and discover as they go with choreographed clues along the way. Finally, offer a reflection or decompression space at the end that allows for impact and meaning making and perhaps, literally adjustments to lights, sounds, environmental levels.  

Takeaway #6

Knowing the outcome you want for your audience and organization is the first design step.  How does the solution create meaning, for whom and for what end? A shiny VR solution might not be the best answer.  Technology is a tool to an end.  Digital can be the right tool, or it can just be a distraction. 

Takeaway #7

Going high-tech does not require huge teams.  New York Times immersive work is accomplished in teams of four; one camera, three software tools.  The structure and process are similar to AR. To make a compelling experience, make sure it is:

A) easy to understand; and

B) Digital and physical seamlessly blend.


If you are determined or curious about digital solutions, the following image provides the process of design for a digital immersive experience

Creating an Immersive Digital Experience.png


If you are still curious or just looking for ideas, the following examples will surely enlighten: