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Elevating Storytelling and Emotional Connection in Immersive Design

ISSUE 4 • May 2023

Elevating Storytelling and Emotional Connection in Immersive Design

By Marco E. Bruscoli, Scholar-in-Residence, WolfBrown

As my research into the immersive paradigm goes deeper and deeper, I’m continually reminded that we are three-dimensional human beings. We do not inhabit a flat, two-dimensional world; instead, we live in a three-dimensional environment, experiencing life through movement and interaction with our surroundings. Our senses have evolved to allow us to engage with the world, developing a sense of balance, depth, smell, touch, and more—a complex array of perceptions that help us understand our position and the world around us. We make choices and possess free will, the primary driver of our “sense of presence” in the here and now. We communicate and receive external input constantly. However, many of the narratives we experience, particularly the majority of mass media we unconsciously rely on, are two-dimensional or have adapted to two-dimensionality, which does not reflect how we interact with the world as human beings.

In a previous newsletter, we referred to the “Experience Economy” (Pine and Gilmore) – the idea that consumers today prefer to pay for unique live experiences rather than goods or services. This yearning individuals have to actively participate in the stories that interest them and to have experiences where they are active creators rather than passive consumers is reflected in the growth of immersive entertainment attractions, such as theme parks, immersive theater, immersive art exhibitions, and virtual reality.

If arts presenters and producers are to move with this inexorable evolution, the time has come to develop new narrative models that are more natural, more organic, and less limiting for us as an animal species. New immersive narrative models have the power to activate sensations we are unaccustomed to experiencing in conventional arts presentations.

Take, for instance, the direct stimulation of memories through interaction. The project “In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats” is an immersive virtual experience that transports us directly to the late 1990s as we search for an acid-house rave in the English suburbs. The sheer number of era-specific details we can interact with firsthand through an Oculus headset and the choices we make during the simulation allow us to relive those particular sensations. Immersive design makes that historical period accessible, encouraging participants to interact and interpret, drawing from their own experience.

In immersive design, the story is shaped, in part, by the participant, as they will ultimately be the ones who’ll choose their own path through the story as a co-creator. This position must be authorized, in some way, by the designer, who is no longer the sole author but also a facilitator, granting the user some degree of agency over their experience.

Agency leads to exploration, and exploration, in turn, leads to discovery. Director and artist Tim Burton masterfully interpreted the relationship between agency, exploration, and discovery in his latest immersive experience, “Labyrinth.” This vast exhibition space transports visitors through various film worlds, including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, Wednesday, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The diverse rooms are filled with original artwork, sculptures, and specially created animations.

As the name suggests, the exhibit’s layout is a labyrinth. Visitors independently choose their path among more than 300 possible routes, allowing myriad ways of interacting with the work and, most importantly, enjoying the atmosphere. Upon entering the experience, the journey’s progression is up to you, making the encounter unique and unrepeatable.

Image of people dancing on a runway
Render by Courtesy Production An artist rendering of the Broadway Theatre for “Here Lies Love,” the immersive David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical about Imelda Marcos

What immersive experiences strive to accomplish is to effectively eliminate all unnatural operational limitations and present an environment in which people can interact with one another and the work itself. In essence, they seek to break down the “fourth wall.” Breaking down this wall not only calls for dynamic storytelling that continuously evolves during the experience; it also necessitates rethinking the design and layout of the exhibition spaces.

A prime example is the immersive musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, “Here Lies Love,” which centers around Imelda Marcos (the former wife of the Philippine Prime Minister). In this production, the famous Broadway Theatre—a traditional proscenium theater built in 1924—is transformed, in part, into a massive nightclub. The performance space for the actors is set amidst a standing, dancing crowd on the floor where the front seating section would typically be.

Immersive design seeks to ensure that people are more than just passive consumers. It doesn’t involve the audience merely sitting in a chair and being told a story, which would be akin to approaching a painting or a sculpture on a pedestal — an experience that more and more people find esoteric and puzzling.

True fans don’t just want to watch another… and another… and another episode; they want to dive into the action and make a direct connection. They want to inhabit the story’s world.

Ryuichi Sakamoto
Luigi & Iango, 2023 Ryuichi Sakamoto

Consider the case of master composer and artist Ryuichi Sakamoto, pioneering electronic musician and Oscar winner for the “Last Emperor” score. Before his passing, Sakamoto left behind an immersive exhibition as his final work. He was in the planning stages of “KAGAMI,” scheduled to premiere this summer at The Shed in New York City. According to representatives of the mixed-reality content production studio Tin Drum, the program represents a new kind of concert, fusing moving photography with the real world in a mixed-media presentation. Though Sakamoto will not be physically present, audiences wearing optically transparent devices (e.g., smart glasses) can view a virtual Sakamoto performing on piano alongside dimensional art aligned with the music. It seems as though Sakamoto has, in a way, survived—not just through his music but also through this deeply immersive experience.

We are only just beginning to truly explore the power of immersive storytelling. Reconfiguring the relationships between story, space, and time will allow us to activate greater public interest in art, artists, history, science, and contemporary issues and ideas in new ways. It will also require us to think very differently about programming.

Projects We're Following

Highlights of immersive experiences that caught our eye

Image of Shakespeare in neon

Image: Bompas & Parr

New Immersive Shakespeare Museum Opens in Shoreditch (UK)

The Museum of Shakespeare, an immersive and interactive experience, will open in Shoreditch, East London, in Spring 2024. Set within the remains of The Curtain Playhouse, visitors can explore Elizabethan London and learn about Shakespeare’s life, inspirations, and creative process. Featuring original objects, multisensory experiences, and a reconstructed stage, the museum is a collaboration between creative studio Bompas & Parr, the Museum of London Archaeology, and Historic England. It will be part of The Stage development.

BBC immersive experience with Macaws (birds) flying around on screens

Image: Alex Board | BBC

A BBC Production: Immersive Earth Experience Narrated by David Attenborough

Opening in Spring 2023,the BBC Earth Experience at the Daikin Centre in Earl’s Court offers a captivating, immersive journey through the natural phenomena of the seven continents. It uses multi-angle screens and immersive audio and is narrated by David Attenborough. The hour-long experience expands on the popular 2019 BBC TV show Seven Worlds, One Planet. The limited-time event runs until the end of July 2023. The Daikin Centre is demountable, addressing environmental concerns.

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Image: Pawel Paniczko. Factory International 2022, Manchester, UK. Commissioned by Factory International

Factory International: The New Large-Scale Immersive Facility in Manchester (UK)

Opening in June 2023, Factory International is a global arts, music, and culture destination in Manchester’s St John’s neighborhood. Spanning 13,350 square meters, the venue offers flexible spaces for large-scale artistic work and diverse performances. Factory International will host over 80 gigs a year and house Factory Academy, supporting careers in creative industries. The venue will be the centerpiece of the 2023 Manchester International Festival, with major exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama’s “You, Me and the Balloons” and the immersive Matrix-inspired performance “Free Your Mind.”

Image of Collider webpage with avatars

Image: Avatar: The Way of Water

The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water

A new art exhibit called “The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water – An Immersive Experience” launched on Earth Day, April 22, at the Lighthouse Artspace in Los Angeles. The exhibit features behind-the-scenes content, props, costumes, life-sized character statues, and stunning film scenes. Celebrating the successful Avatar franchise, the exhibit is free for visitors and coincides with the film’s record-breaking performance and the anticipation of future installments.

A deep dive into the latest coverage of immersive art performance

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Image: Bookcover for "Integrated Storytelling by Design" by Klaus Sommer Paulsen

Integrated Storytelling by Design

Integrated Storytelling by Design by Klaus Sommer Paulsen is a groundbreaking guide to crafting impactful stories and concepts for interactive, digital, and multi-platform storytelling. This innovative book focuses on audience-centered design methods to elevate audience engagement in various existing and emerging platforms. Paulsen’s visionary approach reimagines storytelling as a design process that effectively combines narrative and experience, empowering readers to harness the potential of new narrative dimensions.

Colorful red, yellow, green image of book cover with text Immersive Storytelling

Image: Bookcover for Immersive Storytelling for Real and Imagined Worlds: A Writer’s Guide

Immersive Storytelling for Real and Imagined Worlds: A Writer's Guide

Immersive Storytelling by Margaret Kerrison is a pioneering writer’s guide that delves into the art of crafting narratives that place the audience at the center of the action. As a theme park designer, Kerrison shares valuable insights on transforming ideas into fully realized experiences. This richly illustrated book, tailored for writers, offers a step-by-step blueprint on evolving from simply telling a story to creating immersive worlds. Using case studies to demonstrate effective techniques, Kerrison emphasizes the crucial role of writers within creative teams and provides the essential tools to bring your ideas to life as full-fledged experiences.

Image of vibee logo and people partying

Image: Ariana Sacco

Vibee: Curated Destination Experiences by Live Nation

Vibee, founded by Live Nation, is a music-led destination experience company offering immersive trips for music lovers to connect with their favorite artists in sought-after locations worldwide. Partnering with renowned live event and festival producers, Vibee aims to create diverse cross-generational experiences, including multi-day events, festival packages, and Las Vegas residencies. The company’s mission focuses on curated experiences, festival integrations, and Las Vegas residencies, offering fans unique opportunities to engage with artists and enjoy exclusive perks.

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Image: Lance Gerber, courtesy Coachella

Coachella 2023 Art Program Returns with New Large-Scale Immersive Works

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival opened with nine international artists’ immersive installations, transforming the landscape with color, light, and alternate perspectives.

Immersive Tech Spotlight

Innovative developments in immersive technology

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Image: Paul Bourke

Projector Resources for Projection Mapping

This resource provides essential information about projection mapping and selecting appropriate projectors. It features Paul Bourke’s influential paper on edge blending. The page recommends TouchDesigner’s Projection-Mapping Resources for understanding core principles. It also highlights Projector Central’s Throw Distance and Image Size calculator, which help users make informed decisions during pre-production.