How to Use Narrative as a Design Tool
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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. 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.
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.
Pokémon GO is a popular 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.
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.
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.
Here are some of the elements you can use to create and maintain immersion:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Physical Comfort: Physical comfort, as well as emotional and psychological well-being, are crucial aspects of immersive experiences. Any discomfort felt by a user will hinder immersion and will likely discourage them from repeating the experience.
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.
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.
Here are some processes to consider for enhanced immersion.
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.
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.
Optimized Performance: An experience must run smoothly without lag or stutter, as technical issues can break immersion.
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.
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.
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:
Build in reminders to look around and check their surroundings.
Don’t make users walk backward.
Avoid long play sessions. Try to find stopping points in the action or moments when users can take a break.
Let users pause or save their progress. Make it easy to continue an experience where they left off.
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.
Copyright holder: Resolution Games Appearance time: 0:35 - 0:47 Copyright license and terms: All Rights Reserved BY Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWQKD9TKWsU&ab_channel=ResolutionGames Copyright holder: The Holo Herald Appearance time: 3:12 - 3:25 Copyright license and terms: CC BY Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kVe00UUdBA&t=297s&ab_channel=TheHoloHerald Copyright holder: Dylan Fox Appearance time: 3:35 - 3:37 Copyright license and terms: CC BY Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPnoeb0zqRs&ab_channel=DylanFox
Video copyright info
Copyright holder: Resolution Games Appearance time: 0:35 - 0:47 Copyright license and terms: All Rights Reserved BY Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWQKD9TKWsU&ab_channel=ResolutionGames
Copyright holder: The Holo Herald Appearance time: 3:12 - 3:25 Copyright license and terms: CC BY Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kVe00UUdBA&t=297s&ab_channel=TheHoloHerald
Copyright holder: Dylan Fox Appearance time: 3:35 - 3:37 Copyright license and terms: CC BY Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPnoeb0zqRs&ab_channel=DylanFox
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.
Read “User 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
Here’s the entire UX literature on Immersion in Extended Reality (XR) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Immersion in Extended Reality (XR) with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .
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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.
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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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