The world we experience is not exactly the real world. Human experience is a mental construction, mediated though our physical senses. What this means is that every aspect of our daily lives is interpreted. First, we filter perceptions through our five senses; and, then we selectively filter each conscious experience through attitudes, beliefs, culture and environmental conditions.
Within this perceptual process, presence is the sense of “being there”, that is, our experience of the self in the world. In technology-mediated spaces (e.g. books, digital spaces, virtual reality etc.) a greater sense of presence means that you feel more engaged within that environment and less aware of the environment in which you are physically located. The presence that occurs in the real world is the standard by which we measure presence in imagined and created environments. Immersion is the ability of an environment to evoke the sensation of presence, or “being there” in the audience. The amount of immersiveness depends on various conditions such as fidelity, interactivity and believability – all which work to increase the sense of presence. A well-simulated world can transport us so we become lost within the story.
While presence, immersion and simulations are constructs often linked to things like gaming and virtual reality, the constructs are not new. Storytellers have been conjuring believable immersive experience since the beginning of humanity. A good story well told, invents an immersive environment in the imagination.
Used wisely, technology can boost the experience but it is just a tool. Technology alone does not create an immersive experience. At its essence, immersion is about feelings. Being immersed in an event means to be engaged - to feel involved, emotionally connected and present. A truly immersive experience engages us on a human level, giving us a narrative and a clear purpose. Immersive environments offer audiences a chance to feel like they belong within the work and are truly part of whatever world it creates.
Art has a substantial history of using multisensory stimuli and interactivity for creative expression as well as to increase public interest. Immersive installations enlist our senses to create context and a space of absorption where the sense of being there is enhanced. Immersive exhibitions have the capacity to engage visitors in curated worlds that mobilize sensation and imagination.
Immersive interactive technologies have mainly been developed for entertainment and training; but, there is a growing appetite for experiential and immersive art. Realizing the psychological power of immersion, spaces can be created that generate genuine emotional responses allowing an installation to become integrated with the visitors own history and self-narrative at an emotional as well as cognitive level. Such potential increases considerably when we shift the focus toward experiences that support human wellbeing and positive social change. The Holocaust Memorial Museum does this. As the architect of the space, James Ingo Freed described: “It communicates alienation, terror and the claustrophobia of the people herded into cattle cars, and the disorienting selection process at the gates of the camps after their interminable trip...it is not meant to be an architectural promenade or a walk through memory or an exposition of emotion, but all of this. It must be intestinal, visceral; it must take you in its grip.”
Visitors of immersive art installations experience a sense of being there with enough detachment to reflect upon the world. This promotes critical thinking and self-examination. Further, immersion in art settings can cause a strong visceral and cognitive acceptance of what is being experienced, thus enhancing the richness and memorability of the visitor experience. Being fully engaged means that a visitor accepts the point of view of the narrator and becomes active in the actual construction of the story. Multisensory opportunities create efficient social and emotional engagement where the mind, body, emotions and spirit are all involved in holistic transformative perceiving and learning.
Collaborative science and art installations with multisensory environments represent a compelling way for evidence-based narratives to be presented that are capable of producing transformative learning, empathy and social change. If we can imagine new scenarios and immersively manifest these visions so they can be seen and heard and interacted with, then we can also believe them and we have begun the process of creating a better world.