As technologies evolve, they mutate and transform the ways in which we perceive and experience our immediate world, ultimately, changing us along the way. In a multichannel world, design is constantly bringing digital elements into space but also bringing aspects from our physical reality and reinventing them in virtual worlds, creating an endless hybrid reality loop. As a studio, we are driven by exploring how spatial design can create immersive experiences that can have a positive impact in our lives. In this article we wonder about the roots, challenges and opportunities of the digital tools in spatial design to achieve new forms of immersion.
Immersion; A Human Instinct
‘The spiritual potential and powerful metapsychological effects of immersion can easily be abused as a seductive force, even in the more mundane, instrumental uses of cyberspace. Yet the very notion of immersion suggests a spiritual realm, an amniotic ocean, where one might be washed in symbols and emerge reborn.’ (1)
Humans have always been seeking to be immersed -whether that is into nature, religious rituals, music, psychedelic journeys, games, art or other kinds of profound experiences. Immersion is a natural neurological state, in which we are deeply attentive to information at the same time we are emotionally engaged with it. This is why it is said to be an incredible learning tool; immersive experiences are emotionally tagged in our brain, becoming more meaningful and memorable. At the same time, different kinds of immersive experiences can have the ability to transport us to alternate worlds, states of mind, or simply open up new modes of sensorial and cognitive perception that were previously unimaginable. This can have a huge impact on the way we see and experience life. We have therefore been intentionally creating immersive experiences with different available technologies at hand throughout history, and art has embraced its transformative power ‘using all available technical means to remove the boundary between observer and image space’ (2)
Immersion is usually immediately attached in our minds to new technologies like VR or AR, that revolve around things being ‘virtual’ as opposed to ‘real’. Yet the notion of virtuality is much older than VR and was not originated by technology itself; it belongs to an intrinsic human desire for illusion, which has been widely explored by various artistic media, from phantasmagoria in the eighteen century, to panorama paintings, cinema, and later on, computer-generated images (CGI) and VR. In ‘Virtual Art’, Oliver Grau reflects on how Panorama paintings, patented by Robert Baker in the XVIII century, created a popularly celebrated optical illusion generated by a circular canvas viewed from a central platform. Placing the observer in the picture, panoramas became a medium for art, education, political propaganda and entertainment. From a visual perspective, this was the first fully immersive 360 environment, way before online 360 virtual rooms and VR would even appear in our imagination. Almost two centuries later, Claude Monet would delete the imaginary viewer from his large scale paintings, immersing the observer into the pond as an active performer in the scene.
Digital Storytelling; rolling into a multichannel world.
‘If stories themselves are universal, the way we tell them changes with the technology at hand. Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative’ (3)
The emergence of new technologies has changed how we tell stories over time, creating new forms of engagement that go beyond visual immersion. Conventional narrative media like books, TV and cinema, have been transporting people through immersive stories for a long time, connecting emotionally with the audience, where we are spectators only. Its narrative power relies on the ability to immerse us elsewhere and connect to our emotions. This happens not necessarily by blurring Baker’s or Monet’s visual boundary between observer and space, but blurring the mediation channel itself: for a second, we forget we are reading a book, or watching a screen. They become windows or portals of some kind.
But ‘play’ has also always been at the centre of entertainment and the notion of immersive experiences. The boom of Theme Parks during the 20th century, placed the audience as active participants, transporting them into fully 3D interactive narrative environments. This is why game design is today one of the dominant forms of entertainment and immersive storytelling; alongside blurring the mediation channel (screen, controller, VR set, or even the awareness of being in a game), it establishes an interactive relationship with the audience, driven by goals and reward systems in which we have the power of decision making. The game design industry has been driven by the development of CGI processing and visualisation technologies that can make 3D environments feel more ‘real’ than reality. As a studio, we have enjoyed revisiting 90s videogames like Myst and the immersive power it created with static 3D renders. Directly or indirectly, architectural visualisations and digital art have been moving along hand in hand with the game design industry. But the interesting thing about contemporary games and interactive virtual environments is their power to -for good or for bad- transport us to remote spaces through interactive relationships and experiences, that can trigger emotional responses and chemical processes in our brain. These virtual experiences are connecting the power of very convincing visual and sensory environments with emotional narratives, and most importantly, with the agency of decision-making. As immersive experiences, these virtual environments have thus blended the boundaries from what seems to be ‘real’ to what is ‘virtual’. But is there such a division nowadays anyway?
Alternate reality games and deep media had already completely merged everyday life into a hybrid and complex network, not only between life and fantasy but also between multiple media channels. As Frank Rose explains in the ‘Art of Immersion’, growing from the Otaku culture and Japan’s ‘media mix’ in the 70s, the concept of ‘deep media’ is a form of narrative that is communicated through varied different media at once, which is participatory and non-linear (like magazines, game design, manga, film, etc). By multiple channels, storytelling becomes immersive in an expanded way; users or audiences become intertwined with the stories and their worlds, to the point that they become part of their own. When we look at how hyperlinked information, social media and advertising work nowadays, aren’t they just an extension of deep media into the most mundane and intrinsic aspect of our lives? We can now simultaneously experience the narrative of a brand by watching a beautifully directed campaign film on their website, following their insights on Instagram, going to their pop-up show, doing some casual online shopping, and also, visiting their physical store. And in the context of the world going radically online, with millions of people being stuck at home with their computers during the pandemic, can we even draw a line anymore between what is ‘real’ and what is 'virtual'? Is it really important to draw that line? Probably not as much as it is to be aware that we live in a multichannel world, and our attention should focus on how things are interacting in between. Immersive experiences are now much more than taking us from reality to fiction in a unidirectional storyline or space; they are also about curating the purpose and quality of contents, and a never-ending blending of digital space with physical space, global locations with local interiors, specialised contents with narrative worlds, virtual objects to material ones, online worlds and offline worlds into one fluid, hybrid reality.
The Potential of Hybrid Worlds
We are digital consumers, no matter if that is through podcasts, online magazines, youtube videos, Netflix, WhatsApp or social media. A big part of our life happens through digital platforms, improving our communication, efficiency and access to information. But the digital not only exists via online interfaces, it is embedded in our spaces through physical objects like phones, screens, speakers, and so on. The art world has embraced the digital as a new medium for immersion; from phantasmagoria projections to digital photography, 3D animation, and all new media installations, art has created an experimental field for these hybrid worlds to meet. Furthermore, augmented reality (AR) started long before we could bring wild animals to our living rooms through our phones. We live in a continuous information flow created by information coming from and into space through pieces of digital technology, turning physical space into ‘data space’, as Lev Manovich would call it (4). In a way, digital software and 3D space are mutually constituted; produced through one another. They are even dependent on each other. Let’s think of an example used by Dodge and Kitchen to explain what they call code-spaces (5): If the software that runs the check-in of an airport system doesn't work, the space loses its original functionality and not only the check counters become pointless but the whole dynamic that the space of the airport was designed for could collapse. So not only do digital platforms need physical space to exist, but it is also the other way around in many things that we may consider mundane (think of your home lighting, WIFI, traffic lights, etc). We consider this an important statement when thinking of spatial design in the digital age because it opens up a whole range of possibilities in the usual dichotomy between online and offline worlds. If we see these worlds as ones that are already part of one, we might as well start feeling more confident about designing spaces that can coexist simultaneously, and smoothly, in a multichannel strategy... because we are not focusing on drawing that line. We may even take advantage of this and expand the limits of what spatial design can do.
When a space needs to exist digitally, the immediate response goes in the direction of 3D viewing rooms, 3D scanned tours or VR experiences. Starting with tools like Google street views, all of these are incredible media that have enabled us to visit places that would otherwise be impossible to. Google streets view works well to have a sense of a city, find a specific location, plan a journey, or just wander around random parts of the world. But does a direct translation of this work when we want to visit an interior space like a gallery, an architectural interior and its material details, or a space that is interesting for its immersive qualities? If immersion relies on things such as storytelling, sensorial stimulation, attention, and emotional engagement to captivate a person, how can an existent 3D space replicate that immersiveness when being collapsed in a low quality scanned image, that is in the end, flat and distorted?
With most cultural, retail and entertainment spaces being closed intermittently for more than a year during the pandemic, many of us have been left with a feeling of disappointment after visiting 3D scanned versions of physical gallery exhibitions or stores, where moving around is not enough of a trigger to make us wonder around for long. Although contemporary 3D scanning technologies are incredibly useful and wonderful, they don’t necessarily translate the ephemeral qualities of light, materials and phenomenological experience that can make a space magical in real life. In the void gap left by the lack of the storyline and directed visual curation that a videogame experience would have, these virtual experiences can often show in similar protagonism an art piece, a hole in the wall, and a stained old wood floor, leaving us confused and uninterested in exploring the space itself. However, moving closer to VR experiences and game design, visiting completely digitally rendered 3D spaces have offered some interesting potentials. Newly designed virtual environments can offer more than only the contents they are supposed to show, through spatialities that don’t necessarily correlate to an existing space, or even to the logics of any cartesian space in our planet. There is a certain freedom and discoverability in virtually rendered spaces that can become part of the creative content and narrative, and not only means to be immersed. However, they need to correlate to many other elements of storytelling, interaction, sensorial experience and incentive to make them truly immersive and intellectually stimulating. When experienced through a VR set, spaces become automatically more immersive from an ocular-sensorial point of view, but as shown by centuries of literature, cinema, media art installations, and game design, a VR set is not the only way of being immersed into a new imaginary space.
There is no way back from deep-media and the multichannel world we live in, and therefore, designing digital worlds should probably not be about fitting everything in a one screen-based 3D space, or one VR headset experience that is inaccessible for most of the population. Going digital can mean existing in different channels and forms simultaneously, and spatial design can be part of this as imagery, a film, a soundscape, a navigable fantasy virtual room, an experimental website, a pop up space or a permanent architectural location that is intentionally intertwined with all other digital spheres at once. Our physical world is still a grounding point to our sense of awareness of the environment, our sense of empathy and social responsibility. And creating experiences that immerse us into digital worlds, is not about replacing those that we physically have, but about enriching and multiplying them in alternative ways. As humans, we are always building models of the world around us, whether they are in the form of a film, architecture or a political model. We design them because, to different extents, they present new models of perception that can help us to reconsider what was previously a given, and think about what could be different. Spatial design has incredible tools to propose new models of perception, new windows of experiences. And part of design’s challenge today is to find meaningful ways to make these models work fluidly and simultaneously between physical and digital states of matter.
1. Morse, Margaret ‘Nature Morte: Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments’, in Immersed in Technology, Art and Virtual Environments (MIT Press, 1996).
2. Grau, Oliver, Virtual art, From Illusion to Immersion (MIT Press, 2003)
3. Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion, (W. W. Norton Company, 2011.
4. Manovich, The poetics of Augmented Space (2003)
5. Kitchin, R., and Dodge, M., Code/Space Software and Everyday Life (MIt Press, 2011)
By Mále Uribe, Head of Art Development & Research