An Immersive Media junkie.


I am a film maker, which is, by definition, a storyteller.  Honestly, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but this is the closest I could get.  My earliest memories of escapism are the films that allowed me to experience something so profound that it wasn’t possible for me to classify, it was the reason I pretended to have “Luke” as a middle name for a short period in secondary school.  Much later, as a young man in my twenties, I discovered a world of drugs that brought about a similar level of escapism. In that chemical embrace I had moments that I would describe as ecstatic, that took me beyond my inner reality to an epic and grand place.  I entered recovery before my 30th birthday, and have since spent over a decade vigorously focussing on my career and personal life, but always trying to trigger those “peak experiences”.  Let’s just say that no-one who knows me would called me balanced.  My drive is toward extremes, and extremes are by their nature not positively healthy.  Work, play, body or mind.  I always sought the pinnacle of something (at least that’s how I sold it to myself and those around me).  Now, while I understood my personality as a type predisposed to this behaviour, it has only been in the past few years – as my career has focussed more and more on Immersive Media – that I look with older, but fresher eyes, at the similarity beneath my experience and how it has shaped what I do (or, let’s be more realistic, try to do).  As I would prefer to leave this planet in somewhat better shape than I find it in, what follows is my personal account to see how far this medium can help in doing just that – improve the planet’s shape that is.

What is Immersive Media?

Imagine a great sailing vessel on a stormy ocean (with you, a lone sailor on your iPhone lit by the gentle glow of an App in the pouring rain, and cursing your connection), this is how I would explain the concept of Immersive Media.   In this metaphor Immersive Media is the ship itself, steering the course of your reality on the digital sea of media.  Perhaps I should update the idea to be a starship like the Enterprise and the sea is the galaxy, but you get the idea.  So how is “Immersive” media different from the garden variety meat-and-two-veg media we get served normally?   The principles are for the most part exactly the same, but more than the cool sound of it (doesn’t the word immersive literally sound like it surrounds you),  I believe the title deserves to be capitalised into a category of its own for the sheer power it wields.  In fact, to return to my metaphor of a galleon or star-cruiser steering its course on the digital ether, Immersive Media is a vessel that can literally shape your experience of the universe.   Ok, so that’s the gauntlet I have laid down.  This is a game-changer.  (Sheesh, how high are your expectations now?)

Immersive Media is about creating story-experiences.  The title itself is pretty self-explanatory.  Does your content – whether it’s TV, online, gaming or live – allow your audience to be subsumed into it?  For the most part the buzz around 360, transmedia, cross-platform and convergence (which are all immersive media) focusses on using multiple channels to reach out and engage.  The misconception is that if you have hit your audience with every media platform at your disposal, then you have done your part. However, the reality is that actually succeeding at this kind of content is a little more complex.

So what sets the Immersive experience apart?

Immersion occurs when the audience is in a particular state of mind. (PS: any media requires this in order to “immerse” its audience, but you will see the further applications as we go).

I can still recall that intensity of being with Luke Skywalker in a rebel base on Hoth, under attack from Imperial Walkers.  I must have been six years old.  Once, I stood alone inside the temple of the moon at Winay Wanya, there was a full moon above the snow-capped Andes and fireflies blinking blue among the ancient Inca ruins, and I can remember looking around, almost desperate for someone to share the experience with, and as I did that, the feeling slipping away.  I have had flashes of it when a song I loved unexpectedly played and my focus crystallised on the scent of grass and hot tarmac and I was in the summer of the early eighties before a Johannesburg thunderstorm.  I have had it while running, playing computer games and listening to someone share their story in a twelve step meeting.  And last night I watched the documentary “Amy” and I had it.  There was a grainy image of her staring directly at the lens, frozen in time.  The camera slowly pulled into her eyes, and there “it” was.  And it occurred to me that so much of my soul searching, even substance abusing, and certainly professional work life has all been centred on trying to trigger different, but profoundly powerful experiences.   The moments were so diverse that quite simply, I had never considered that there might be a common thread. 

And this was my epiphany.  For me, these peak experiences shared a universal constant for them to trigger.

The magic occurred when, momentarily, “I” ceased to exist.  When the person I define as “myself”, or “Brett” was completely forgotten about, that’s when it happened. Immersion requires, at least for a moment, a complete loss of self.  Maybe this is really obvious, but it was something that I had never noticed before, even after studying and reading on the subject in depth.  You’d think after 27 years of making this stuff it would have occurred to me earlier, but I guess I am just slow on the uptake.  It took me all this time to consciously identify how profound this is to the process of making films, stories or games  – that if you wish to not just draw an audience, but completely, wholeheartedly absorb them inside, you have to make them forget themselves.  In those brief moments, there is no you, just the experience – and it’s just ahwwwsum.  Of course most of this kind of experience is damn hard to analyse because it is so subjective.  The key for validating it, was for me, the fact that the moment the “I” appeared in the experience, the experience ended.  Test it.  Try and stay in the sense of a heightened experience, even the memory of it, retain the sense of connectedness or vast scale or incredible detail.   Personally, the moment I orientate myself by thinking or remembering where I am, the feeling slips away and is gone.  Of course this is why staying “in it” is hard, because it requires a lot to keep the “I” suspended and just be in the experience itself. It’s really only post the experience where we classify it.  If we were aware of it at the time, it wouldn’t happen (yup, a real catch 22). So it’s hard to study because it’s basically impossible to self-report without the idea of a “self” creeping in, if you take my point.

Let me re-iterate here, this is my subjective experience of the process, and as I have led with the caveat that I am not altogether the healthiest of mental subjects, feel free to roll your eyes and walk away.  But my passion for this subject is because I want to have experiences like this ALL THE TIME.  I love being whisked to other worlds in books or Game of Thrones or D&D or (yes, I admit) a good pop tune.  I would go as far to say that I am addicted to the feeling, but – and here is the killer – it’s happening less and less the older I get.   So basically now you know you are dealing with a strung out addict needing a fix.  So yes, of course I am passionate about Immersive Media, I might actually sell all my household goods to make another short movie for my hit.  I am an IM junkie.  And here is what my subjective passion has led me to believe.

Immersive media is breaking down particular ways of experiencing a story.  

Story is paramount in how we understand the human experience.  There is nothing new I could add to this topic.  We compose our lives and meaning itself through story (if you want more on this just google, there are oodles of studies on the subject).  The means of telling however are continuously changing, and especially in the last few decades.  The words transmediacross-platformconvergence and 360 point to the fact that story-telling in different forms, consumed on various platforms, has shifted the way narrative is formed.  Our understanding of the world is gleaned from the multitude of information that we pick and choose from.  I once heard Gary Carter of Freemantle talk about “story as archaeology”.  It was such a beautiful description which sums up so completely the move away from linear storytelling to creating story through multiple different sources.  The idea is simple, our version of a story comes from Facebook, 60 minutes, newspapers, radio and a slew of competing media.  The sheer magnitude of the number of competing threads is incredible. As we assemble each piece into what becomes “our version”, piecing bits from here and there, our relationship to the information itself changes.  We are more invested, likely to believe the facts, and shift our perceptions to match.  That’s why the idea of “archaeology” in story is so brilliant, if you are the “discoverer” your personal investment in the story is on an entirely different level of immersion.

But Immersive Media goes a step further than this multi-pronged approach to storytelling.  In many of its incarnations, especially in the world of gaming, there is a radical move around who is the star of the show.  How?  Look at the movement from identification with a story (movie/ TV model from beginning of cinema to the 1980’s), to the viewer participation model (reality TV, voting flourishing in the 90’s and 00’s) to the viewer as the lead character and co-author of the story (ARG’s, gaming, the entire YouTube generation) you can see the power of not just having your 15 minutes but actually making, editing and publishing them each and every day.  Consider this.  The most successful Alternative Reality Games (ARG’s, and for those of you who don’t know this genre check out The Beast and I Love Bees) were designed so that the audience had to choose to go down “the rabbit hole”.  They didn’t sell you or convince you, you had to do the work.  Nothing is as powerful as an idea that is chosen and co-created, rather than one that is seen to be sold.  (I will talk about authenticity being the ultimate commodity a little later, but it’s worth flagging here – we are automatically aware of an agenda when being pushed towards something, but it is practically invisible if it appears that you have chosen or sought out the idea yourself.)  These games didn’t form fan groups, they literally changed people’s lives and turned them into followers – and I mean that word in its quasi-religious sense.

Immersive stories facilitate the deepest kind of empathy, where the line of identification with the lead character and ourselves is permeated.  Or, in perhaps it’s most powerful incarnation, where we are the lead character.  Of course to prove my point I will now cite facts that well, prove my point.  The most powerful example where the audience is the lead character is in the gaming world – and if you want to see the figures, which are staggering, you can follow this thread. Modern computer games set you as the central character, often avatars, but unquestionably fashioned to become extensions of the self.  At one less layer of remove, and even larger in scale, is the YouTube UGC generation, where the audience is posting the content they themselves create.  On  average there is an hour of material uploading every second on YouTube, which equates to more in one month on YouTube than on the 3 major networks in the past 60 years combined (check out stats here : 35 Mind Numbing YouTube Facts, Figures and Statistics – Infographic).  It’s not rocket science to understand that people want to be the heroes of their own stories, and that media that facilitates that immersion will be the leading market. The outcome is that the gaming market is roughly twice the size of the Hollywood machine, and UGC content is recording billions of hours.

So, if we understand the value of where we place the subject of Immersive Media, the next most vital point is the nature of the world in which they find themselves.  As a rule of thumb I would say that the content needs to be intimately detailed. It needs to be personal.  And above all, it must be authentic.  (These are deeply interconnected, as I believe it is the personal and the detail that makes for the authentic).  Just as every writing school begins with the mantra “write what you know”, it is the small nuances of intimate detail that carry a ring of truth.

However, the packaging that we wrap the story in – literally the way it is presented to the world (from a book’s front cover, to the choice of HD cameras for a promo clip) deeply affect how the story is perceived or received by its intended audience (or in fact if its ever seen at all!)  For me authenticity is far and away the most powerful element for content to achieve a positive reception (you can read that as “go viral” or get good reviews).  Now, don’t confuse authenticity with reality, because being authentic is all about perception.  I could easily ask if your Facebook profile is “authentic”, and while it might not be false, the often patent authoring of our content makes for less authenticity.  In fact, the performance of Snapchat is for me such a powerful indicator that the real is valued above the curated/ created.  Joseph Bayer, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, recently conducted a study of social media and found that Snapchat

“offers the most positive social media experience”

The article in Market Business News by  Joseph Nordqvist goes onto say

The researchers found that people paid more attention to their Snapchat messages compared to other platforms.

Basically, people are tired of the energy invested in creating/ curating their lives on social media that lasts.  They feel better, and engage more deeply, with something that is considered more real because it requires LESS concern over the final product.  But the goal posts of what is defined as more “real” is constantly moving.  This is why our concept of what is authentic will constantly shift with the times.

For example, on YouTube we are seeing the emergence of a new class of celebrity – “authentically ordinary” people who have followers in the millions.  They are celebrated precisely because they are not the hyper-constructed “reality” of the Kardashians.  Yes, as they attain their fame they are arguably no less constructed (or certainly become so) and perhaps one of my favourite twists on this story is that of Essena O’Neill.  She was an internet superstar in her teens, and then went truly viral as she “gave it all up”, but the stardom from her bowing out of social media simply changed the narrative and turned her into an even bigger celebrity (which she embraced it seems.)  There is a quick clip here that’s worth watching.  The point though is that in the landscape of the authentic, we are cast again as heroes.  Ordinary becomes exceptional, and the traditional model of identification still holds true.  The “that could be me” concept of winning the viral lotto – becoming a celebrity for your real existence – has become apocryphal, it’s a new myth that is perpetuated daily.

So Immersive Media allows us to become Luke Skywalker, or at least come closer than sitting in a dark room merely watching an actor play the role.  Immersive Media extends into the realm where the viewer can become the part and it’s as authentic and seemingly possible as the barrage of internet heroes that trend daily.  I mean, Lordy, who doesn’t want to be a Jedi? (Oh click on it, you know you want to)

The power of Immersive Media on perception.

But Immersive Media’s real power is how it affects our perception, and to see this experience at work lets digress a little.

Can you recall when you have watched something profoundly moving that allowed you to experience another life, way of being or emotion?   When you suddenly had an emotional lift from a melody line, or saw the value of the abstract in a splatter of paint?  Maybe it was a powerful memory?   Try and recall it vividly.  I have found that in the moment, the moment that you “get it”, the moment you slip into the “other’s” perspective and the “you” disappears there is a gap that is created.  And in the gap amazing things become possible, and time itself, shifts.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi talks of “Flow”, and is the pre-eminent scholar on the subject.  In his conditions for this state of being he describes how asking someone how they are feeling during the experience of flow – when time is almost suspended and all attention focussed on the task – is basically meaningless.  There isn’t a feeling during flow because you are not aware of you.  You are momentarily too present in the doing to bother with attending to the conscious “being”.  Csikzentmihalyi’s “Flow” is much more complex and far reaching than just this factoid, but for me the kernel is the same.   If you can produce or induce the loss of self, you lay the ground for the most powerful kind of magic that interrupts your experience of the world in the most profound way.  Anais Nin captured it best with her most beautiful of statements,

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”

Our perception doesn’t just frame our experience, it is so fundamental in the actual experience itself as to be indivisible from it.  Immersive Media swallows you whole and you lose track of time.  Just ask a mom with her teenage sons playing PS3.  Ask the wives and boyfriends of the 30+ generation on World of Warcraft and incessantly tweeting at the dinner table.  You get the picture (omg, turn your phone off already).

It is in this warping of time that I think we can see the extent of Immersive Media’s powerful potential.  If I throwback a little, I have a memory of when my dad told me that some or other “life changing” event was a week away.  I was probably not even four or five so I cannot remember what the event was (probably a birthday or Christmas), but I can clearly remember the perception of “a week” existing on the very boundary of my understanding.  To put it bluntly, it was fucking endlessly far away.  I can still to this day capture the sense of trying to push my perception into that future event and it boggled me.  It was just heartbreakingly too far.  I remember the same sense of time on our family trip to Durban in the car (6 hours) where my mother provided us with games, possibly every hour, so that we didn’t resort to cannibalism or worse.  Time was measured differently then.  It was either now, or basically too far away to contemplate.  Age changed all of that.  So what makes a child’s perception of time so different?   Young kids are more likely to “feel time” than understand it, and that means they don’t process the duration but the lived experience. Time isn’t changing for them, just how they perceive it is.  As attention shifts, so time shifts.  In Immersive Media the magnitude of its effect is how completely it can absorb total attention (a significant factor in “Flow”), and thus alter our experience of the world.  Does this sound all very new age-ish?  Well, it’s because it is the fundamental building block of meditation, mindfulness and a host of spiritual teaching from a range of theologies and philosophies.  Remove the self, focus on the reality of “what is”, and people start generating powerful – almost spiritual – experiences.

Shall I repeat that?  I am saying that Immersive Media can generate the same profound sense of wonder as the most powerful recreational drugs or religious/ spiritual experiences.   As attention shifts, the past and future disappear from view and only the now remains – exactly as Csikzentmihalyi defines in his study of Flow. Now consider the statement again, “we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are”.  If you can alter a person’s perception of the world – just what are the possibilities for Immersive Media in the future?

Immersive focusses on authenticity, detail and the personal but allows for the epic and awe inspiring.

When I went looking for the key to unlock the process of immersion I found it everywhere, preached by religions, promised by the physical pleasure of sex, constructed into entertainment in all its forms and described in a multitude of ways by psychology.    The words transcendence, awe, connection, empathy, identification and understanding all have been used to describe powerful immersive experiences.  So let me return to my beginning statement. Immersive Media provides undoubtedly the most powerful means to shape opinion, belief and the very experience of the world we live in.

The height of human achievements are defined so often by moments of inspiration or awe.  The work of Keltner and Haidt defined awe in the seminal essay Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion as having two central themes, (1) the experience was vast and it (2) required accommodation (p 303).  In other words, it’s so damn big and “awesome” that what you previously knew couldn’t contain the experience and you actually felt your mind “expand” to accommodate the scale of the experience.  Shiota, Keltner and Mossman followed with the later essay on The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals and effects on self-concept. Where they identified

the experience of awe is associated with a sense of the smallness of self and the presence of something greater than the self, as well as some disengagement from awareness of the self. (p 960)

So why is this valuable?

Well, at the very least Star Wars got it right in those first movies that managed to inspire a few million kids to change their behaviour.  And I don’t just mean buying the plastic paraphernalia that accompanied the franchise, but for me (as I am the guinea pig in this experiment) I chose my entire career based on trying to repeat a feeling created when I was six years old. Imagine if that’s what brands could do willy nilly.  My god, we would be even more sheepishly enslaved.  (Oh, wait a minute, I think Apple have done it…)  Of course you might say, if it was that easy everyone would have marketing campaigns that worked and not the avalanche of bullshit that we can so easily ignore.  Well, that brings me to my last point.  If you can capture the audience, you need to do so by appealing to perhaps one of the most basic needs of all.  The desire for meaning.

Immersive Media and creating meaning.

Positive psychology emerged at the beginning of the 90’s.  Basically the field of psychology had devoted itself to studying what was wrong with all of us, rather than what was good or made us happy.  (There are some thought leaders here that are really worth mentioning should you live in a cave and haven’t heard of them).  Martin Seligman is the man behind much of positive psychology’s in-roads and one of the most important minds on the subject, and of course there is Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi who is basically a demi-god,  but one cannot leave out Jane McGonigal, an architect of the Games for Change movement (amongst a distinguished career as futurist and ARG builder) and her book Reality is Broken should be required reading.  These individuals have all worked deeply on the application of meaning for the betterment of the self, and greater good of all of us, with McGonigal focussing on how gaming can be used to affect positive change in the real world.  But what inspires me from these digital mentors is not that they have a passion for doing good, but rather their realisation that by unlocking an audience’s passion, there is unlimited potential to reach for magnificent human achievements.

If you follow what is happening in crowd-sourcing, in the realm of big corporates using “amateurs” in science and maths to solve questions the professionals cant’s (and how they are getting it right), if you look at how over seven thousand users banded together to form the greatest AI to solve a virtual game (The Beast) you start to realise that we are on the tipping point of a new kind of power.  It is might even replace the paradigm that religions have occupied for millennia.  It might in fact just become a new one.  It is however happening as we speak.

Of course most Immersive Media occupies fictional realms.  This does not mean that we are less moved by it, but turning it into real world meaning is difficult.  That doesn’t mean we are not inspired by the heroes journey and imagine it playing in our life, but making the bridge between the digital/ story world and our daily lives is not always obvious or clear.

And here is where I return to the problem I faced right in the beginning, the reason why I personally find fewer and fewer opportunities for me to get that “Immersion” feeling (cue the song) .  If you recall I mentioned the documentary “Amy” as a trigger point, and the clear moment I realised the value of the absence of self.  But it had meaning for me because I have been through the process of rehab myself, and I know both the pain and the hardships.  The kind of kinship is not going to be felt by everyone watching.  For those of us who do know, the experience is so fundamentally personal that the immersion can be quite radical.  The key is making content that understands the trigger point of the audience it intends to reach.  Once you get that, you hold the apple from the forbidden tree in your hands.  Yup, it is knowledge of unparalleled power to move and inspire (forget about the cast out of Eden part, that’s just awkward).

And here is where I will leave this story for now.  As an admitted Immersive Media junkie in search of creating a fix, mostly for myself, but with an intense desire to share it with an audience.  Junkie’s love company, so if you feel like it, come past and let me know of a ride worth making.


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