Immersion in Extended Reality (XR)

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What is Immersion in Extended Reality (XR)?

Immersion refers to the objective degree to which a user is fully drawn in and absorbed by an experience. Immersion is an essential element of a successful virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) product. The level of immersion often determines user engagement.

In VR, immersion refers to the extent to which the application, experience or technology engages users by creating a sensory-rich and interactive environment. It’s connected to, but differs slightly from presence in VR. Technology includes VR headsets or head-mounted displays (HMDs). It encompasses qualities such as sensory range, vividness, visual quality, interactability, and the narrative aspect of the experience. Immersion is more focused on the external—it’s primarily about the technology and how effectively it can engage the user's senses to create a convincing virtual environment.

When immersed in an experience, users become deeply engrossed and shift their focus from the physical world to the digital one. Factors such as graphics quality, sound, haptic feedback, and sensory stimuli make the VR experience engaging and deepen immersion. A high level of immersion, and a compelling virtual environment, can evoke powerful emotions and a strong sense of involvement and makes it easier for users to suspend disbelief. 

Game designers and AR and VR designers alike must consider the many factors that contribute to a product’s level of immersion and balance user experience with user engagement. 

Levels of Immersion

A screenshot from a social VR application that has an overlay with an illustration of a person with a blue background and white lines going horizontally across the background to the person. These lines represent the different levels of immersion.

Different mediums facilitate different levels of immersion. AR/MR have lower levels of immersion, while VR offers a deeper sense of immersion. Social VR heightens immersion even further, allowing different users to interact with each other.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

In an AR experience, the level of immersion is typically lower because users need to remain aware of their physical surroundings for safety reasons. Virtual reality experiences offer deeper immersion, but the quality of the design and its ability to take advantage of immersion affects the user experience. The metaverse, or a social VR experience, represents a community-level immersion. 

Frank Spillers, CEO of UX design consulting firm, Experience Dynamics, talks more about immersion and the levels afforded by different applications. 

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Example of AR Immersion—Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO is a popular social augmented reality mobile game that encourages players to explore the real-world environment to find and capture virtual Pokémon. The connection of AR technology with the physical adds a layer of immersion. The thrill of physically moving to different locations in search of rare Pokémon adds an adventurous element that deepens players' immersion in the game's world. Additionally, the game's community-driven events and battles at real-world landmarks, such as the famous Pokémon GO Fest and Gym Battles at local monuments, enhance the immersive and social aspects. 

A photo of someone's arm extended with their mobile phone in their hand. They're playing the augmented reality game Pokémon GO. In the background you can see a group of six people, also playing Pokémon GO as demonstrated by them looking at their phones. They're standing in a park.

While augmented reality can't offer the same level of immersion as virtual reality, Pokémon GO's adventurousness encourages people to explore both their physical world and the world offered by the game, deepening the immersion of the experience.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Example of VR Immersion—Half-Life: Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx by Valve immerses players in the decaying Half-Life universe and offers highly realistic, detail-rich environments for interaction. Players can manipulate objects, solve intricate puzzles, and engage in intense combat.

Half-Life: Alyx’s compelling storyline is what sets it apart. Players assume the role of Alyx Vance, a resistance fighter in a world overrun by alien creatures. Their mission is to seize a superweapon from an alien race, free humanity from its oppressive rule and save Alyx’s father. This narrative encourages players to form deep emotional connections with the characters and the game world. The intuitive controls, whether through handheld controllers or voice commands, mimic real-world actions and further draw players into the game's reality. The game's seamless performance and options for user comfort preservation ensure a disruption-free experience. Half-Life: Alyx stands as a testament to VR's potential to deliver immersive, realistic, and deeply engaging experiences.

Best Practices and Tips to Design Immersive Experiences 

Immersive experiences aren’t limited to digital experiences—the theater, movies, theme parks and even books can be immersive. In the context of AR, MR (mixed reality), VR, XR (extended reality) and interactive media like video games, designers must actively induce immersion and also be aware of immersion-breaking elements. Technical issues, inconsistent design or distracting design choices will break immersion and take users out of the experience and back to reality. 

Elements for Immersion

Here are some of the elements you can use to create and maintain immersion:

  1. Realistic environments: Visually and audibly realistic virtual environments created with high-quality 3D graphics, spatial audio, and attention to detail in the environment help users feel more immersed.

  2. Interactivity: Interactive elements that respond to user actions encourage user engagement. Users should be able to manipulate virtual objects, explore, and influence the virtual environment.

  3. Storytelling: Well-crafted and considered narratives enhance the immersion of a digital experience. A story can draw users into the virtual world and keep them engaged.

  4. Social interaction: In social VR or XR experiences, the primary goal is for users to interact with each other. Human interaction can improve the state of immersion.

  5. Physical comfort: Physical comfort, as well as emotional and psychological well-being, are crucial aspects of immersive experiences. Any discomfort or cybersickness felt by a user will hinder immersion and will likely discourage them from repeating the experience. An optimized field of view is an important element of physical comfort.

  6. Intuitive controls: Whether it's through a mobile phone, game console, handheld controllers, gestures, voice commands, or eye tracking, controls should mimic real-world interactions for increased immersion.

  7. Emotional engagement: When users make an emotional connection with the content with elements like a compelling narrative, character development, agency and sensory stimulation, it heightens the sense of immersion. 

Processes for Immersion

Here are some processes to consider for enhanced immersion.

  1. User-centric design: The more user-focused a product is, the more successful it will be. The same is true of immersion—consider the user's comfort, preferences, and abilities to ensure a user-friendly and immersive experience.

  2. Onboard users: Newer technologies like AR and VR have a steeper learning curve than mobile and web interfaces that people are accustomed to. Depending on your design and users, you will likely need to onboard them onto the platform as well as your experience.

  3. Optimized performance: An experience must run smoothly without lag or stutter, as technical issues can break immersion.

  4. Define different levels of immersion: You might be tempted to create fully immersive experiences using the latest devices and technologies. However, not everyone will have access to such technologies. Consider how you can gracefully fall back to lower-tech and slightly less immersive experiences to avoid excluding user groups.

  5. Design for seamless transfers between ecosystems: Immersive media like AR and VR are emerging technologies with different platforms that do not necessarily talk to each other. Users may experience our solutions on different platforms and may want to switch from one to another. Where feasible, make it easy to move from one platform to another so that users don’t have to start over.

How to Balance Immersion and Safety

An infographic called 'Exploring harm', it shows how user's can identify potential danger when using augmented reality.

To identify potentially dangerous situations, use ethnographic research techniques such as observation and interviews to identify user concerns. Look at legal and past precedents, activist opinions (especially around privacy) and safety guidelines from other countries or regions. Also consider historical and cultural factors that might affect user safety while interacting with an immersive experience.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Safety is especially crucial for AR and VR. Immersion can dramatically increase user engagement but also lessen or cut off outside stimuli, which can be dangerous for particular contexts of use. For augmented reality contexts, the user may be walking or even running. In these situations, highly immersive AR experiences could be dangerous.

For example, when driving a real-life car, you don't want a user immersed in a virtual world and unable to notice dangers. For this reason, AR interaction design is about balancing safety and immersion.

Google offers some tips and best practices to prioritize user safety:

  1. Build in reminders to look around and check their surroundings.

  2. Don’t make users walk backward.

  3. Avoid long play sessions. Try to find stopping points in the action or moments when users can take a break.

  4. Let users pause or save their progress. Make it easy to continue an experience where they left off.

  5. Encourage users to move around their phone or change the position they’re holding it in to prevent hand fatigue. You can also build resting points in the experience.

Immersive experiences should also provide safeguards to protect users from bullying and abuse, such as the ability to mute, block or report users and specific incidents. Codes of conduct and content moderation outline acceptable etiquette and encourage positive user behavior.

In this video, the CEO of UX consulting firm Experience Dynamics elaborates on the importance of safety. 

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Learn More about Immersion

Deepen your understanding of immersion in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.

Explore VR in this comprehensive book, Jason Jerald’s The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality.

Read more about immersion in this piece by Google, VR, AR, MR and What Does Immersion Actually Mean?

This LinkedIn article discusses Building Immersive Experiences with Extended Reality (XR) Technologies.

ReadUser Safety in AR/VR: Protecting Adults by the  Interactive Technology and Innovation Foundation” for an in-depth look into AR and VR safety.

Review Google’s Safety and comfort guidelines for ARCore development.

Explore the relationship between usability and immersion in Immersive vs. Frictionless: Getting the Experience Right” by Anyi Sun.

Daniel See, Principal National Creative Director for Deloitte Digital Australia, shares Principles for creating a great immersive experience.

Watch this insightful presentation by Ipsos on Design Thinking for Immersive Experiences

Questions about Immersion

How do different levels of immersion affect user experience in XR applications?

Different levels of immersion profoundly impact the user experience in Extended Reality (XR) applications as it shapes user's perceptions, interactions, and overall engagement with the digital environment. Immersion ranges from non-immersive experiences, where users stay aware of their real-world surroundings while interacting with digital content, to fully immersive experiences that completely captivate users, which makes them lose touch with the real world. In non-immersive settings, users might engage with digital content on desktops or mobile devices, augmenting reality or viewing it in a contained format. Although these experiences can enhance learning and provide convenient visualization, they often fail to evoke strong emotional connections or a deep sense of presence within the digital realm. 

  

Different mediums offer varying levels of immersion,  Augmented Reality (AR) tends to offer a lower level of immersion compared to Virtual Reality (VR). The pinnacle of immersion comes from advanced VR systems that transport users to another world and allow for highly realistic interactions. This deep immersion boosts experiences in entertainment, education, and training, offering unparalleled levels of engagement and emotional impact, albeit requiring sophisticated technology and potentially leading to cybersickness or disorientation for some. 

Learn more about the various levels of immersion in this video: 

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What are the most well-regarded, popular or influential books on immersion (in XR)?  

Bailenson, J. (2018). Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. W. W. Norton & Company.

Schmalstieg, D., & Hollerer, T. (2016). Augmented Reality: Principles and Practice. Addison-Wesley Professional. 

Jerald, J. (2015). The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality. ACM Books. 

Parisi, T. (2015). Learning Virtual Reality: Developing Immersive Experiences and Applications for Desktop, Web, and Mobile. O'Reilly Media. 

Papagiannis, H. (2017). Augmented Human: How Technology Is Shaping the New Reality. O'Reilly Media.

What are the key components of immersive XR experiences? 

The key components of immersive Extended Reality (XR) experiences include:

High-quality visuals: Crisp, high-resolution graphics are essential for a believable and engaging digital environment. They help users feel more present and immersed in the XR experience.

Responsive interaction: Real-time responsiveness to user actions ensures a seamless experience and makes the digital environment feel more real and interactive.

Spatial audio: 3D audio technology enhances the realism of XR environments with sound that changes based on the user's location and actions within the digital space.

Haptic feedback: Physical feedback through vibrations or movements enables users to feel a tactile connection to the virtual world which adds another layer of immersion.

Intuitive user interfaces: User interfaces that are easy to navigate and understand reduce the learning curve and help maintain the sense of immersion by not distracting the user from the experience.

Environmental interaction: Allowing users to interact with objects and elements within the digital environment in a realistic manner further enhances the sense of presence and immersion.

Narrative engagement: A compelling story or narrative that draws users in can significantly increase engagement and emotional investment in the XR experience.

Learn more about immersion in our courses,  UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality.

What technologies are used to create immersive XR environments?

Creating immersive Extended Reality (XR) environments involves several key technologies:

Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) or VR headsets: These are essential for VR and MR experiences, providing visual and auditory immersion into the digital world. HMDs track the user's head movements to adjust the virtual environment accordingly.

Augmented reality glasses: AR glasses overlay digital information onto the real world and allow users to see both physical and digital elements simultaneously. These glasses are lightweight and designed for prolonged use.

Motion tracking sensors: These sensors detect the user's movements and translate them to physical actions in the digital environment. They enable interactive experiences by allowing users to navigate and manipulate virtual objects.

Haptic feedback devices: These devices provide tactile feedback to users, simulating the touch and feel of virtual objects to enhance realism.

3D audio systems: Spatial audio technologies create a surround sound experience which makes the virtual environment more realistic by mimicking how sound behaves in the real world.

Powerful computing platforms: High-performance computers and processors power the complex simulations and graphics required for immersive XR experiences to ensure smooth and responsive interactions.

Software Development Kits (SDKs) and platforms: SDKs for VR, AR, and MR development enable creators to build immersive experiences. Platforms like Unity and Unreal Engine are popular choices for developing XR content.

Learn more about immersion and related technologies in our courses,  UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality.

What are the best practices for designing immersive XR interfaces? 

Here are the best practices that ensure a user-friendly, engaging, and accessible experience for XR:

User comfort: Design interfaces that minimize motion sickness and visual fatigue. Keep interactions within easy reach and maintain a stable horizon line to enhance comfort.

Intuitive navigation: Create navigation systems that are easy to understand and use. Implement gesture controls, voice commands, or simple gaze-based selections that feel natural to the user.

Realistic interactions: Design interactions that mimic real-world behavior. Utilize physics engines to ensure objects in the virtual space respond as they would in reality, enhancing the sense of immersion.

Spatial awareness: Design environments and interfaces that encourage users to explore their surroundings. Use audio cues and visual indicators to guide users and highlight interactive elements.

Minimalistic design principles: Avoid cluttering the interface with unnecessary elements. A clean and focused design helps users navigate the experience without feeling overwhelmed.

Clear feedback: Offer immediate and clear feedback for user actions. Visual, auditory, or haptic signals can inform users of their interactions' outcomes, reinforcing engagement.

Accessibility: Design with accessibility in mind to accommodate users with different abilities. Include options for adjusting text size, contrast settings, and alternative input methods.

Test with real users: Conduct usability testing with a diverse group of users early and often. Real-world testing provides valuable insights into user behavior and interface effectiveness.

Learn more about how to design immersive experiences in this Master Class, How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR.

What role does user research play in creating immersive XR applications? 

User research is fundamental in crafting immersive Extended Reality (XR) applications, to ensure that they are accessible, engaging, and meet the target audience's expectations. This research allows designers to tailor XR experiences effectively to the audience by identifying their needs, preferences, and behaviors. It offers insights into how users interact with XR environments, leading to the creation of intuitive and natural interfaces that resonate with users' expectations and enhance usability. Furthermore, by uncovering potential usability issues early in the development process, user research enables timely adjustments that significantly improve the overall user experience.

Learn more about user research in this article, What is User Research

How can designers ensure accessibility in immersive XR experiences?

Designers can ensure accessibility in immersive XR experiences by adopting inclusive design principles that accommodate users with diverse abilities. Initially, conducting accessibility audits and involving users with disabilities in the testing process helps identify potential barriers, guiding the adaptation of XR environments to various needs. Incorporating adjustable settings, such as text size, contrast, and audio descriptions, allows users to tailor experiences to their preferences and requirements. Designers should also implement intuitive navigation that does not rely solely on visual cues, incorporating haptic feedback and spatial audio to guide users through the XR environment, making it accessible to those with visual or auditory impairments.

Furthermore, designers can embrace universal design principles, creating XR applications that are inherently accessible to as wide an audience as possible. This involves using clear, simple language for instructions and feedback, ensuring physical interactions within the XR space are achievable for users with different mobility levels, and providing alternative input methods for interacting with the digital environment. By prioritizing accessibility from the outset, designers can create immersive XR experiences that are enjoyable and usable for everyone, breaking down barriers and fostering inclusivity in the digital realm.

Learn more about accessibility in immersive environments in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

What are some highly cited scientific research papers on immersion?

Guerra-Tamez CR. The Impact of Immersion through Virtual Reality in the Learning Experiences of Art and Design Students: The Mediating Effect of the Flow Experience. Education Sciences. 2023; 13(2):185. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci13020185  

Petersen, G. B., Petkakis, G., & Makransky, G. (2022). A study of how immersion and interactivity drive VR learning. Computers & Education, 179, 104429. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2021.104429  

Lo, S. Y., & Lai, C. Y. (2023). Investigating how immersive virtual reality and active navigation mediate the experience of virtual concerts. Scientific reports, 13(1), 8507. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-35369-0 

What tools are recommended for designing immersive XR experiences? 

Unity and Unreal Engine are two leading game development platforms recommended for XR design. They offer powerful graphics rendering, physics engines, and support for VR and AR development. These platforms enable designers to create complex, interactive 3D environments with realistic lighting and textures, crucial for immersive experiences. Unity is particularly favored for its user-friendly interface and extensive asset store, while Unreal Engine is renowned for its high-fidelity visuals and cinematic quality.

Additionally, tools like Autodesk Maya and Blender are good for 3D modeling and animation, allowing designers to craft detailed virtual objects and characters. For prototype testing and user interaction design, software like Sketch, Adobe XD, and Axure RP are recommended.

Learn more about immersion in our course UX Design for Virtual Reality.

How important is the choice of hardware in developing immersive XR applications? 

The choice of hardware is very important as it directly influences the quality, accessibility, and user experience of the final product. High-performance computing hardware is essential to handle the complex graphics, real-time rendering, and physics simulations required for a truly immersive XR experience. The capabilities of the hardware, including processors, graphics cards, and memory, determine the application's responsiveness and the level of detail it can achieve, which are crucial for maintaining immersion without inducing latency or discomfort.

The selection of input and output devices, such as head-mounted displays (HMDs) or VR headsets for VR, AR glasses, and motion tracking sensors, significantly affects how users interact with and perceive the XR environment. Advanced HMDs with high resolution and refresh rates can reduce the risk of motion sickness and improve visual immersion, while precise motion tracking and haptic feedback devices enhance the realism of interactions within the virtual world. 


Learn more about immersion in our course UX Design for Virtual Reality.

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Literature on Immersion in Extended Reality (XR)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Immersion in Extended Reality (XR) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Immersion in Extended Reality (XR)

Take a deep dive into Immersion in Extended Reality (XR) with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .

Virtual reality is a multidimensional universe that invites you to bring stories to life, transform digital interactions, educate with impact and create user-centric and unforgettable experiences. This course equips you with the skills and knowledge to embrace the possibilities and navigate the challenges of virtual reality.

UX Design for Virtual Reality is taught by UX expert Frank Spillers, CEO and founder of the renowned UX consultancy Experience Dynamics. Frank is an expert in the field of VR and AR, and has 22 years of UX experience with Fortune 500 clients including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP, and Capital One.

In UX Design for Virtual Reality, you’ll learn how to create your own successful VR experience through UX design. Informed by technological developments, UX design principles and VR best practices, explore the entire VR design process, from concept to implementation. Apply your newfound skills and knowledge immediately though practical and enjoyable exercises.  

In lesson 1, you’ll immerse yourself in the origins and future potential of VR and you’ll learn how the core principles of UX design apply to VR. 

In lesson 2, you’ll learn about user research methods, custom-tailored for the intricacies of VR.

In lesson 3, you’ll investigate immersion and presence and explore narrative, motion and sounds as design tools. 

In lesson 4, you’ll delve into interface and interaction design to create your own user-friendly, compelling and comfortable VR experiences.

In lesson 5, you’ll gain insights into prototyping, testing, implementing VR experiences, and conducting thorough evaluations.

After each lesson you’ll have the chance to put what you’ve learned into practice with a practical portfolio exercise. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll have a case study to add to your UX portfolio. This case study will be pivotal in your transition from 2D designer to 3D designer. 

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