Esther: Suddenly everyone is talking about immersive experiences – they are popping up everywhere and we see them now in most client briefs. New 360˚ digital installations and immersive experiences independent from established cultural institutions or big destination attractions are trying to attract new audiences.
Esteban: The experiential storytelling and immersive installations that we have been developing for brands, galleries, museums and attractions, and the immersive adventures that you’d find inside theme parks, are becoming a standalone ticketed consumer event.
Darren: The language used to articulate new immersive experiences comes from the brand world I work in, with its focus on creating connection with consumers. Immersive experiences aren’t new – they’re a part of our everyday lives. What is more absorbing than spending 10 hours making a Lego kit, or sitting in the cinema as a child and, through special effects and incredible storytelling, feeling as though you are flying through space?
Esteban: Yes, what’s the definition of ‘immersive’? What’s more immersive than a child playing with a toy and imagining themselves as part of the adventure? Than getting lost in a book, or letting a song transport you to another place and time? All these experiences get under our skin. For a few moments we let ourselves get lost in a story and, more than that, we start to believe that it’s our story.
Esther: Some are using a narrow definition of ‘immersive’ to describe large-scale projected or digital imagery surrounding visitors. But even this isn’t new to our work, the huge projected shows we created inside the Imperial War Museum North utterly immersed visitors in powerful stories and images of conflict and its impact. It is a profoundly emotional experience. Much more important than the medium is the aim in almost every project we do to take visitors on a journey or reconnect them with memories. Often those stories are rich, deep and emotional.
Darren: Just like we did for the Singapore Bicentennial experience. We reconnected visitors with the day of the funeral of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew by recreating the downpour of rain that happened on the day. It was powerful stuff.
Esteban: What’s new is separating the immersive experience and offering it as a standalone, paid-for event. Some of these can work very well; they can be a thrilling, surprising spectacle. Others can feel a little empty, however slick the technology and intense the visual and audio extravaganza.
Darren: Perhaps the mistake is to believe that the secret of success lies in the technology. Walking through a wardrobe onto crunchy snow in the Story Museum in Oxford with my kid; being in a glass tunnel in an aquarium and watching sealions swim me; all of these are immersive experiences that beat many of the newer, projection-reliant ones. These are memories that stick, they are ‘sticky’ experiences.
Esteban: I recall years ago in an exhibition in Colombia being taken to a dark room and the lights suddenly coming on to reveal that we were surrounded by sparkling gold exhibits. I have never forgotten it.
Esther: At the heart of all these experiences is that they transport you inside a story, as an observer, as an explorer or even as a protagonist. The last is familiar to us as exhibition designers. We are used to giving visitors opportunities to connect, participate and respond. Being part of a group of protagonists is a newer thing. We are designing an interactive immersive pavilion for an ecopark in China where around 200 people move together to trigger the rain in a hyperreal desert landscape. Water curtains trigger around them and then the whole space starts to ‘flower’. Large mechanical plants open into a canopy overhead, while virtual and projected flowers and washes of coloured lighting flood the space.
Darren: The two key factors are always the content and the technology – the medium and message need to come together. Content that is so absorbing that it invites your imagination inside the story, and technology (or not) that puts your body and your senses there too.
Esther: And finding the moment or element that triggers vivid memories. Whether that’s a new visual perspective, sound, rhythm, or smell that visitors can connect to. Years ago, we developed an experience at Hampton Court that evoked the sounds and smells of a Tudor kitchen, immersing and involving visitors in the preparation of a feast. Simple but effective.
Darren: We put hundreds of visitors into the shared experience of preparing for a night out in one of our brand activations. It was something everyone could connect to, and as a result was amazingly successful.
Esteban: A good immersive experience combines absorbing narrative with technology that best tells that story. But a great immersive experience does something else, something magical. It goes deeper, through a sense of authenticity, wonder or emotion, from horror to excitement.
Darren: Yes, it has absorbing content and, yes, it uses a medium that’s perfectly matched to the message. But it adds something else, something that will make it unforgettable – it adds you.