Immersion is not a sensory experience

For a few months when I was around ten years old, I wanted to be a cartoonist. Looking back, it was a ridiculously weird thing for me to want to be, given that I couldn’t draw. But I had been inspired by a book I read, an early young-adult novel (probably before the category existed) about a kid who wanted to be a cartoonist. When I read, I was so immersed in the book’s world that I began madly drawing comic strips and dreaming of seeing them in the Courier-Mail. It’s probably just as well that the book’s title and author have been lost in the fog of memory, because the story has now taken on a slightly mystical quality in hindsight that it surely could never live up to in reality. But for a while there, I was hooked, inside that story. And although the details have faded, the memory of what the book inspired in me remains clear.

I assume you too have experienced this kind of immersion: the sense that the real world fades away and that you instead inhabit a world entirely of someone else’s making. And only after hours have whiled away do you re-emerge, blinking into the stark light of day, wondering what the hell just happened and why it’s suddenly so dark. Whether as reader or writer, immersion is a kind of peak experience. It can happen in film and television, in stageplays, and of course in gaming. But, for me, immersion is at its best and most powerful in text and especially in long form fiction.

My preference of form is just that: a preference. But I have a theory about why text is so powerful in this regard, which I’ll come back to. First, it’s important to distinguish what we mean when we talk about ‘immersion’.

It’s interesting that much of the discussion around ‘immersive design’ emphasises its medium, or rather media, of delivery and it’s true that some of the most immersive stories I’ve come across began in television, moved across to the web, then proliferated into podcasts, email lists, phone messages, apps, and poster campaigns. Transmedia stories that ‘break out’ of their original container can be heady and almost overwhelming, especially the first time around. But it’s not the mechanics of delivery that ultimately make a good transmedia story, something that becomes clear the more of them you experience. Like a magic trick, the wonder associated with each new shift in medium tends to pale with each repetition.

Then there’s virtual and augmented reality, technologies touted as the most intensely immersive experiences Silicon Valley can muster. Facebook’s Oculus Rift physically separates you from your visual reality and replaces it with stereoscopic images presented as close to your eyeballs as it can get. Microsoft’s Hololens takes a slightly different approach, not entirely shutting the world out, but rather overlaying it with ‘holographic’ display, allowing projected three-dimensional objects to interact with the physical environment around you. I’m not going to lie, this development looks completely awesome and I can’t wait to give both of these a spin at the first opportunity. But ultimately, what are these devices if not just souped up displays? New display technology is always impressive, at first. I remember being astonished the first time I experienced the iPhone’s capacitive touch display, but such astonishment was shortlived. Human beings habituate remarkably fast: ‘wow’ can turn into ‘now what?’ in seconds. That first flush of wonder at the holographic displays will quickly settle into the realisation of how ridiculous people look wearing goggles and stabbing at imaginary buttons in the air in front of them.

Overloading your visual cortex and drowning out reality is the shallowest form of immersion, achieved through brute force. If ‘immersion’ simply means pushing the real world aside and replacing it with something else, then what happens when everyone gets used to visual overload? Do we begin an arms race of sensory stimulus? A pair of good headphones will tie the auditory sense in pretty easily and we’re already working on haptic displays that give us tactile feedback. But then what about taste and smell? And don’t forget proprioception: the sense of our body’s position in space. Is it only when the last of our senses have been conquered will we finally achieve true immersion?

But wait a second. Let’s go back to that kid who thought he could be a cartoonist despite all evidence to the contrary. Let’s go to any of the times you might have found yourself lost in a book prompted by nothing but black marks on an off-white background. One of the most extraordinary things about reading is that we are not even conscious of what our senses are doing.

Immersion is not a sensory experience; it is a cognitive one.

What drives immersion in transmedia and what will ultimately drive immersion in the Rift or the Hololens has nothing to do with medium or technology. Immersion comes from ideas, characters and scenarios that have been well thought out and put forward with clarity and creativity. Text is capable of creating incredibly powerful immersive experiences in a container that offers a deliberately limited sensory experience. This is its strength. In text, the distance between you and the story reduces to almost nothing.

Concern for ‘the future of the book’ is frequently code for the future of a particular type of reading experience: the cognitive immersion of ‘losing yourself in a good book’, the falling away of time and space and the curious intimacy of a one-on-one relationship between reader and writer. We will find new ways to deliver ‘immersive’ stories, but success in transporting us from reality will always depend on factors beyond the means of technology.