Immersive Storytelling: The Next Frontier?

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Immersive Storytelling: The Next Frontier?

Innovation in and by museums is no longer a frightening or alien concept, and is increasingly being woven into the cultural fabric of museums. Disciplinary boundaries have become more porous, and museums have become skilled at incorporating social media and new technologies.

Makerspace at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 2014. Photo: www.kentuckyarts.org

Makerspace at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 2014. Photo: www.kentuckyarts.org

Immersion Room, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Local Projects. Photo: cooperhewitt.photoshelter.com

Immersion Room, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Local Projects. Photo: http://cooperhewitt.photoshelter.com

In turn, the museum experience has evolved dramatically, becoming interactive, participatory, and engaging in ways that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. Indeed, as experiments and techniques mature, immersive storytelling – multisensory, complex, and deeply encompassing – has become the next frontier for museums.

This is for two reasons. First, audience expectations have changed dramatically, especially in response to the ubiquity of digital entertainment, video games, and the Internet. That is, audiences develop new kinds of expectations in response to the technologies we adopt, and people are no longer content to sit back passively. They want to feel part of the experience.

A group of visitors to the Contemporary Art Center in Malaga, Spain, take a selfie in front of photos of Marina Abramović. Image by © JON NAZCA/Reuters/Corbis

A group of visitors to the Contemporary Art Center in Malaga, Spain, take a selfie in front of photos of Marina Abramović. Image by © JON NAZCA/Reuters/Corbis. www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150121-the-scourge-of-the-selfie

Second, advances in technology —cheaper screens, greater image quality, and increased computing power— have opened exciting possibilities for storytellers, artists, and designers, and offer new ways to shape how people learn about art, science, and history.

Immersion and Engagement
Immersion and engagement are typically used interchangeably, but immersion is not the same as engagement.  A useful way of understanding them is not as separate states of being, but as part of a spectrum of attentiveness.

Immersion is what happens when people are not merely informed or entertained but actually slip into a manufactured reality. In other words, it is the experience of losing oneself in a fictional world. J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of the famed Lord of the Rings trilogy, described it as “the enchanted state.”

Engagement takes place when a story or message provokes some sort of action among the audience – a tweet, Instagram share, or post-visit conversation over coffee.

Experiments and Opportunities
Museums excel at mounting exhibitions that are engaging and convey stories. And the desire to “immerse” visitors and offer intense, memorable experiences, is certainly not new. Dioramas, models, and displays have always been used.  But rarely do we feel transported into a different reality. Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, observes that exhibitions excel at using a variety of objects and narrative devices to tell broad stories about a time period, particular area of research, set of objects, or concept. Yet specificity and detail, the powerful cornerstones of immersive stories, are rarely found in museum exhibitions.

Indeed, what this new frontier of immersive storytelling foregrounds is a desire for something more physically interactive, more multisensory, that awakens our bodies and senses. Moreover, compared to exhibits with traditional text labels and didactic panels, immersive exhibits have a much wider appeal – from children to older visitors, to persons with visual or hearing impairments, or visitors where language can be a barrier to engagement.

So the question is – how are museums tackling the challenge of immersive storytelling?

The answer is, through experimentation. We’re seeing a proliferation of museums who are installing sound and light shows, interactive multi-user learning stations, and multi-media simulations. Some are dabbling with sensory enhancement, and others are plunging forth with forays into virtual reality.

The sea voyage: Immersive Exhibit at National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. Photo: www.tinker.nl/en/work/the-sea-voyage

The sea voyage: Immersive Exhibit at National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.
Photo: www.tinker.nl/en/work/the-sea-voyage

caption PLACE-Hampi, an immersive installation created by Jeffrey Shaw and Sarah Kenderdine, leading scholars and artists in virtual reality technology.

A member of the Tate Britain eats a chocolate in front of a painting by Francis Bacon entitled Figure in Landscape 1945, as part of the Tate Sensorium: taste, touch and smell art. www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/25/chocolate-with-bacon-tate-britain-feast-senses

A member of the Tate Britain eats a chocolate in front of a painting by Francis Bacon entitled Figure in Landscape 1945, as part of the Tate Sensorium: taste, touch and smell art. Photo: Alastair Grant/Associated Press. www.theguardian.com

Birdly, a bird-flight simulator that allows a user to soar over Manhattan. Photo: Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image. http://scienceandfilm.org/articles/2553/a-sense-of-story

Birdly, a bird-flight simulator that allows a user to soar over Manhattan. Photo: Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image. http://scienceandfilm.org/articles/2553/a-sense-of-story

Ascend the Wall, the Game of Thrones VR experience. Photo: Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/BizBash.

Ascend the Wall, the Game of Thrones VR experience. Photo: Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/BizBash.

Overall, these examples show that technology can be particularly effective when attempting to create cognitively rich environments, with multiple channels of sensory engagement that convey strong narratives. Indeed, new technologies tend to give rise to creative new ideas, and storytelling is usually one of the places that artists, technologists, and audiences tend to flock to first.

Storytelling, in its original form, has always been a living thing – a dialogue, something you could interrupt or physically respond to. Somewhere along the way, we came to expect storytelling as something we experienced passively. Technology has changed our expectations, and what we see is the re-introduction of those physical effects, and interactivity.

Creating immersive storytelling environments is exciting not just for the technology it involves, but for the impact it has on helping people view themselves as part of the story, which in turn enables people to participate and store learning with more commitment. And for museums, who can arguably go further than books or films as far as storytelling is concerned by unpacking a narrative in physical space, this next frontier, is a promising one.

-Hanna Cho, Producer & Project Manager

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