Something that is immersive stimulates multiple senses—not just sight and sound – in order to facilitate an illusion of or beyond reality. Truly immersive experiences are meant to fully capture and engage individuals in the creator’s intended world.
In recent years, “immersive experience” has largely been used to market fanciful technologies like 3D renderings or virtual and augmented realities. In history, entertainment innovations such as shadow plays, magic shows, circuses, etc., weren’t called “immersive,” but rather referred to as illusions.
As human beings, we depend on our senses to understand the world we live in. Whether it is through contextually relevant cues or lived experiences, these mental representations build over time, shaping to the way we perceive our world. We develop sensory thresholds that act as reference points to help us determine which stimuli is within or out of the norm. This is called the absolute threshold – the lowest level of stimuli that we can notice, while the difference threshold is the smallest amount of change necessary before it is noticeable. These concepts are important for understanding how immersive experiences work on both perceptual and cultural levels.
Magic tricks are amongst the first immersive experiences ever to be documented. By the 18th century, magic was in its Golden Age. This was a time when communication between the East and the West became more frequent, and magicians sought inspiration in melding Eastern folklore with Western technology. Levitation (also called ethereal suspension) was one of the most commonly performed magic tricks. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a French magician now considered the father of modern magic, was the first to popularize the illusion of human suspension. It was inspired by tales of men hovering in air by Western travelers going to and from India.
In order to make his trick compelling to the Western eye, Robert-Houdin knew how to translate fantasy into science. He took advantage of Paris’ then fascination with ether anesthesia and used it in his performance to create the illusion of a magic potion. In his performance, Robert-Houdin wafted a vial of ether under the nose of his “subject” to put him to sleep. In reality, the vial was empty, however the audience smelled ether produced off stage. Robert-Houdin then did his levitation trick on the subject. Needless to say, the audience was dazzled and amazed. So much so, that variations of this trick are still performed centuries later.
Robert-Houdin knew that the secret to creating experiences that fool the senses is a combination of three things: story, technique, and imagination. His illusions masterfully danced along the audiences’ perceived differential threshold, by interweaving multi-sensory stimuli with a story that played upon cultural fascinations of that time. By capturing the public’s imagination, the line that determined reality versus fantasy became blurred.
Today, our media centric world is not so different than 18th century magic tricks. Our digital lives are deeply intertwined with our lived experiences. While we may not be as amazed by a rabbit-in-a-hat trick, we are easily enthralled by a smartphone in a cardboard box. Why? Because we are naturally excited by innovative phenomena that stimulates our senses differently, at this point in time. An application on a smartphone displayed inside a cardboard box allows for an accessible, homemade virtual reality experience; regardless of the fact that cardboard is about as low-tech as you can get– not unlike an empty bottle of ether. Just as Robert-Houdin knew to tap into the excitement of ether as an emerging anesthetic, content providers and marketers are tapping into that multimedia device in your pocket to deliver unique multi-sensory experiences. Perhaps the illusion is not whether or not we can determine the difference between reality and fantasy, but rather if the new experience feels real. After all, it only takes the reflection on a wire or the flicker of a pixel to break a once convincing illusion.