The Power Behind Immersion For Human Experience

The power behind immersion

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Immersion is at the heart of our ability to enjoy the most engaging of media and technology. It’s when, without even trying, you focus your attention away from your physical environment and into the world of a whole new experience.

With more advanced media displays, we can now experience not just a high level of immersion, but also what’s known as suspension of disbelief. It sounds complex, but really it’s just the human ability to accept things that don’t necessarily make sense in order to experience something enjoyable or meaningful.

But how does all this magic really happen? What exactly is going on behind the scenes? Let’s break it down to understand the secrets of a perfect immersive experience.

Different flavours of immersion

To understand the ins and outs of immersion, we actually need to take a good look at the concept as a whole and break it down; there is no one size fits all explanation for what makes the content we consume feel as engaging and exciting as it does.

Perhaps one of the most rudimentary ways to look at it is to refer to subtypes of immersion defined by game design consultant Ernest Adams:

Tactical immersion

Ever watched a ping pong match and noticed the sheer amount of concentration and determination painted across each player’s face, as they pace back and forth firing back the feather-light ball as it zooms across the table? This is what tactical immersion looks like; it’s that feeling of putting all your energy into your physical skills and reflex.

Many of the most thrilling video game genres rely on this type of immersion for optimal enjoyment, from intensive fighters and first-person shooters, to fast-moving platformers and rhythm games.

Strategic/cognitive immersion

Strategic immersion is for your brainpower what tactical immersion is for your actions and reactions. It’s that ‘in the zone’ feeling you get where you are so dedicated to thinking something through, solving a tricky puzzle or making the right decision.

This is the type of trance chess players enter when they’re thinking of exactly the right move to make; they need to prepare for how they can defeat their opponent and how they can protect themselves from being overthrown, so they have to make each move count.

Narrative/emotional immersion

Imagine you’re using your laptop late at night, streaming your favourite box set series online. You tell yourself, “Right, I’m going to limit myself to just one episode and log off at midnight”…you finish episode one, but it was so good, you just need to know what happens next. You keep trying to stop yourself from watching anymore, but every time the end credits roll, it gets harder and harder to resist as you binge your way through the series until before you know it, you check your clock…it’s 3am.

If this has ever happened to you, then congratulations: you are highly susceptible to falling into a state of narrative immersion. Whether it’s in a film, game or book, storytelling is a powerful tool, and if used correctly can suck your mind into a fantastic world that’s hard to break out of.

However, these three definitions alone barely scratch the surface; they are only types of low-level immersion. In other words, they explain scenarios where your concentration feels like it’s drifted away from the real world, but nothing else. Your senses and spatial awareness aren’t involved in this immersion, nor is your mind actually tricked by what’s going on around you.

With today’s technology, we can actually instil immersion of a much higher plane. And that’s why game computing scholars Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen,

Spatial immersion

This is where the excitement of virtual worlds comes into play! Spatial immersion is established when a media display goes beyond acting as…just that, and forms the foundations of a whole new environment to explore, marvel at and even interact with. When this type of immersion comes into play, the audience feels a strong sense of presence in a place they’re not actually in.

Of course, spatial immersion isn’t exclusive to virtual and augmented reality (e.g. have you ever felt your stomach tighten as you cross a precarious bridge in a 3D action adventure game?), but headsets, AR apps and portals take it one step further than a traditional media display could.

Psychological immersion

If a virtual environment is convincing and powerfully crafted enough (or perhaps a little too much so depending on how you look at it!), the audience may go past the stage of suspension of disbelief…to complete eradication of disbelief.

This means there should be nothing in the environment that makes the digital aspect of it too obvious: no distractions like weighty headsets, mic booms or intrusive bulky equipment or  wires lying around everywhere. If everything looks, feels and sounds convincing enough, your ability to understand and interpret your surroundings as intended becomes effortless, and you may for a moment actually forget that everything they are interacting with is, in fact, virtual!

Sensory immersion

We often take our senses for granted, but they perhaps have one of the largest roles to play when it comes to our ability to appreciate high-level immersion!

We have two eyes to see around and behind us in an immersive world, two ears to determine distance and origin of aural objects thanks to spatial sound, fingers to interact with controls and virtual objects, and a sense of balance and temperature to make sense of our physical presence in the world.

Of course, we’re not forgetting our nose and mouth for smelling and tasting, but Smell and taste technologies are still in their very early infancy yet…when they eventually blossom, however, we are confident they could make a heap of difference to your application!


The more immersive an application is, the better we remember it. This isn’t just our excitement talking here; many researchers have backed this claim up. And when we delve into how the human memory system works, it all makes sense.

Our memory has three main stages: long-term, short-term and sensory. Sensory memory is the first and most immediate of these, with compartments known as registers picking up and beginning to make sense of the information around us. Each of our six senses has its own dedicated sensory register:

  • echoic memory (sound)
  • iconic memory (sight)
  • haptic memory (touch and movement)
  • olfactory memory (smell)
  • gustatory memory (taste)
  • spatial memory (proprioception/sense of spatial awareness).

Because an immersive application typically delivers more complex sensory information taken in effortlessly than a conventional content display, the sensory registers take in a lot more at once. The links between all the registers’ tidbits of information are very strong, so when everything you’ve taken in travels into short-term memory, a lot of it carries on over to long-term memory and sticks.

Everything in moderation

So, with all that in mind, does this mean you have to cram in as many sights, sound effects, sensations and funky smells in your application as possible? Well, you’d definitely succeed in giving your audience an experience they’ll remember for a lifetime…but not one they’d look back at too fondly.

You see, the key to optimal immersion is to fill the brain with as much information as possible without overwhelming it. If there isn’t enough happening, the experience may not feel as authentic for your audience and they may become bored. But a full-on sensory assault of flashy colours and noxious noises could result in stress, frustration and even nausea. In fact, you may also end up bringing on the opposite effect of what you wanted: too much going on at once may break the suspension of disbelief, completely destroying the sense of immersion you set out to sustain.

With all that in mind, the world is your oyster! With our portals, there is nothing stopping you from pushing the boundaries of immersion even further and offering an experience your customers will never forget…for all the right reasons, of course!

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