Deep Engagement: Seamless, Immersive and Interactive Experiences

Originally posted:

If a day goes by when I don’t talk to a client about how to make interactions with their brand seamless,immersive or interactive, it’s been a pretty weird day. No one wants to just talk about themselves anymore. We want to find ways to really connect with people deeply over time and to have living brand moments every day. These ideas are at the heart of forming lasting brand-people relationships, but I find that as much as the words are used, they’re also pretty abused. Why?

Well, for starters they’re all super close in meaning. And that can turn things into a hot mess when you’re trying to figure out just what it is you’re creating. But here’s how I draw the lines betweenseamlessimmersive and interactive:

Seamless is about the disappearance of borders. Doug Aitken’s Mirror installation on the façade of the Seattle Art Museum is an apropos example. It’s a massive LED screen that uses responsive editing software to reflect all these crazy changes in the environment around the museum. So the building, the cityscape and the landscape become one. Seriously. It’s kind of dope.

With interactive, we almost always think high-tech. But it doesn’t have to be all about super high-end, gee-whiz gadgets. Look at Nemours Children’s Hospital. The patients can adjust each room’s accent lighting to suit their mood and feel better about their hospital stay. How simple is that? But it’s really effective because it gives people a level of control over their experience. That makes it a total win for everyone. Plus it creates a cool, shifting lighting expression on the building’s façade. So it adds a surprising element to the hospital’s brand.

Immersive is when you become part of a space and integral to the success of that space. I love the way the Rain Room installation that was just featured at The Broad Contemporary Art Museum does this. The whole idea is that you have to move through the room to create pockets of dry space while man-made rain is coming down. So in a sense, it’s also interactive. Like I said, these categories overlap. They’re all gradients that eventually flow into one another.

But the real challenge isn’t about drawing lines in the sand between seamlessimmersive andinteractive. The real challenge is figuring out the story. Why is this experience important and what are we saying? Why are we trying to get people to engage in this way? What are the behaviors we want to pull out and the feelings we want to elicit? And how can we make this more awesome?

I feel like our industry knows how to tell really good stories through the immersive lens. Likewise with interactive. But seamless is the hard one—especially when it comes to integrating technology. But it’s also the most interesting one, in a way, because if it’s done right you shouldn’t notice the tech. It should just be baked in. But what makes this really tricky is that technology changes so fast now and always in this constant state of flux. And it takes tons of money to develop infrastructures that are agile and robust enough to respond to the way that technology morphs all the time. So how do you design in cost-effective ways to deal with this shifting tech landscape? How do you create an experience that doesn’t become instantly dated or obsolete?

For sure, these tech-related questions are something experiential designers will have to wrestle with. But technology doesn’t always have to be the answer. There are plenty of old-school, low-fi ways to engage. Look at the world of theater. I’m really inspired by it and the way it uses simple elements like light, shadow and sound to take audiences on a journey. The show “Sleep No More” has got me super charged. It uses space, sound, lighting and human interaction to erase the boundary between the audience and the actors. Some people say it’s voyeuristic, but I think it goes beyond that. It’sseamlessimmersive and interactive. It’s shared and participatory. But nothing about it is imposed in any way. You’re allowed to wander through the space and discover elements of the plot on your own. So in that way you get to customize the experience, kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure story.

I think all of us involved with experiential design can learn a thing or two from “Sleep No More.” Because we now live in a world where people want to be part of special communities (like on social media), but also want everything personalized. The experiences we create should mirror that dynamic. After all, if it’s relationships that brands want, why not offer the kind of co-creation that’s key to any healthy relationship?

Tom Milavec