A deep dive into immersion

December 2016

t’s difficult to write an article about virtual reality, without using the term “immersion”. And for good reason. All great VR applications strive for a deep immersive experience, giving the user a sense of ‘presence’ in the virtual world. But how do we define immersion and presence, and what are the factors that contribute to make a successful immersive experience?

The term immersion can be used to explain any narrative vehicle that pulls the audience into an experience or story. You can be immersed in a good book,  a dramatic theatre play, or a thrilling video game.  Its all about letting your reality go, suspending disbelief and ultimately welcoming the user to feel part of that another world.

Virtual reality is able to take immersion one step further, by offering the user the ability to feel ‘presence’. Presence is the phenomenon a person feels when connecting to a world or environment outside of their physical body using technology as the filter. Many people describe presence as not the ‘knowing’ but the ‘feeling’ of being in a virtual space.

There are several factors a VR designer needs to take into consideration when building and designing a VR experience and environment that successfully immerses the user and evokes a true sense of presence;

Immersive Flow; is arguably the foundation of which any immersive vehicle needs to balance effectively to achieve immersion. The flow of a film, or a book or a VR experience is the ability for the user to feel engaged, in control and interested in the content they are being shown without feeling overwhelmed, bored or anxious.

Personal Immersion; refers to the user perceiving his/her own physical existence in the virtual world. We might not be consciously aware but many visual queues of where our hands and legs are in our immediate space are used by our brains to give us that feeling of being present in reality. Removing them or not replacing them with accurate representations in VR will impact on immersion.

Spatial Immersion; is about ensuring the VR designers and world builders create a robust and rich environment that is congruent with the virtual world. Interestingly a virtual space does not need to strive for hyper realism to achieve immersion, but it does need to have consistency to help settle a user into a feeling of presence.

Consistency – Building on the point above consistency needs to translate not just across the virtual environment but across all aspects of the virtual world including its inhabitants, physics, lighting etc. Interactions with inhabitants within the virtual world, how physics affect objects all need to follow consistent rules to maintain immersion.

Narrative Immersion – Narrative immersion allows the user to feel they are part of the story, engaged with and shaping the story throughout their experience. This will lead to an emotional attachment to the main character they are playing and a deeper sense of immersion. Bad stories either in VR or any other medium quickly destroys narrative immersion.

Role-playing Immersion – Building on the point above good VR does not have you as a silent observer unlike in films or books, but rather an active participant in the narrative. In a sense you are roleplaying in this new identity and a strong narrative that the user can influence (known as agency) helps build role playing immersion.

Discovery & Interaction – Allowing the user to explore their own environment without being directed is a highly rewarding immersion tool and relies heavily on well thought out and integrated interaction with the virtual world. It also empowers the user in feeling in control which augments the sense of flow. More importantly that interaction needs to also ‘respond’ appropriately to the user acknowledging the user is present in the virtual space.

These immersive factors all help build a feeling of presence in the user, helping to evoke a sense of reality while causing the user to suspend any sense of disbelief. Arguably immersion and presence sits at the very core of a virtual reality experience and it’s therefore a critical aspect that we at Glitch Studios focus much of our time & energy in perfecting for each of our VR projects.