Immersion. The term that VR brought front and center (but who knows where "front" or "center" is in VR?) that every brand, architect, and marketer thinks it needs to be chasing, but what is it?
Coming from theme park design decades ago, one interpretation of immersion was the ability to deliver fantasy, the difference between suspending disbelief and breaking the spell. Immersion in a persistent world that continually reinforces through details that seamlessly keep us believing. Any detail that distracts from what we've come to expect as that world's "logic," jerks us out of a blissful sense of escape, such as the sight of a teleprompter at Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. To that end, as a theme park designer you were constantly on the watch for things in your "land" that contradicted the logic. Immersion and the feeling it conveys is truly job one. It's the difference between a Disneyland and an amusement park.
Virtual Reality 1955
Back in 1955, virtual reality did not exist as a technical platform, but could be achieved in other ways. Walt Disney densely planted a 15 foot high, 360 degree wall of dirt to surround his new Disneyland in hopes of preventing his guests from seeing the orange groves and cheap motels of Anaheim, a death knell to the fantasy he was selling. Walt "rendered" his world with studio backlot architecture, a reality that he envisioned and used trees and skies as his "real time" backdrop. It was truly immersive. In a meaningful way, Disneyland was one, of if not the first persistent virtual world. When at Disney Imagineering, the term for anything that could be seen that conflicted with the themed environs was called a "visual intrusion," even if it was another themed area, like the futuristic spires of Space Mountain being visible over the rooftops of "turn of the century" Main Street USA. As designers of these thematic "lands" in Disneyland Paris ( I had "Main Street USA" for example) we designed so the sight lines of each other's Icon's did not unnecessarily intrude on the other's reality. All to maintain the illusion. In today's theme parks the "real world" can creep in ever slowly and threaten to erode the delicate immersive balance of "suspending disbelief", so adding a Starbucks to the corner of a 19th Century "Main Street" can create tremendous controversy with fans, although it has a line down the block. Why? It's not about coffee, it's about "breaking the spell" and fans see the danger sometimes when the company does not.
Back in 1955 there were no Google or Oculus headgear, so Walt conceived a portal (not unlike Stargate) to take us from the real world to his immersive one. At the park's entrance there are two literal portals beneath the railroad station penetrating that berm. To be sure guests understand that their reality is about to change, there are even plaques over each portal that Disney personally wrote. To me, this is the single biggest cultural breakthrough in theme design. Let the immersion begin. The plaque reads.
As a kid, like many of us, I fell in love with Disneyland but did not know exactly why. It was the power of being in another world and the more I tested it the more real it became. Immersion into a reality I wanted to escape to. Now when I visit other immersive worlds like Venice, Paris, or even the expanse of Yosemite, it's the seamless continuity of emotion that conjures that "spell" unique to each experience. Smelling the pine, or the croissant, or the canal! It's so much more than pixels.
Licensed to Immerse
In experiential design we think the same way and start with the emotion, or spell that binds us and work backwards into a reality that maintains it, knowing that the details go beyond architecture or graphics, but are sensory, just like Venice. It causes you to think "total" and see the experience as a system. Designing a restaurant or a car showroom can be the same way, but it's more important to immerse someone in their aspiration than just use nice finishes. This ClubAston showroom is more about first immersing the customer into an aspirational James Bond style experience and presenting the car in that context, than just using elegant materials from the brand book. We set the cinematic stage and customers feel compelled to play the part. Galpin Aston Martin became the number one dealer in the country.
In fact, I've seen research that said that when people are immersed in another optimistic or safe reality, they are more inclined to accept advertising messages (like a theme park sponsorship) if they are part of the seamless reality. So immersion even has a return on investment. Certainly people will pay more to satisfy emotional needs ($10k for a seat at the Cubs Game 3 to be a part of history) than merely physical ones if they are compelling. Here's a brief video that explains experiential immersion at Disney a bit further.
Net-net. Immersion is a spell worth keeping. Thanks for your attention.