Immersion, Creation & States of Mind
Anyone must at some point in his life have felt so absorbed to an experience or task that forgot about the world around him. As creators, we intend to create spaces which engage people and evoke the feeling of wonder or delight that Vitruvius first stated. Immersion is a term permeating several time-based art disciplines*. Immersive experience has been described in psychologists’ Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi Concept of Flow(2002) as “the subjective experience of engaging just-manageable challenges by tackling a series of goals”, while being intensely concentrated on what one is doing at the present moment, losing his reflective self-consciousness and sense of time.
Focusing on this connection between immersion and states of consciousness, it would be fruitful to speculate on what is the state of human mind during such an experience. In his article The Burning House, Michael Tye(1995) uses several cases of alternated states of consciousness to recognize four distinct concepts of it: higher-order, responsive, discriminatory and phenomenal consciousness. I will only refer to two of his examples relevant to our subject. In one of them, the author experiences a nightmare, so vivid that he wakes up. While he is not responsive, he has higher-order thoughts as he believes he lives in the dream. One other interesting case is the delusive state that someone gets into when hallucinating. Here, phenomenal consciousness prevails, as his thoughts are influenced by his sensations.
Phenomenal consciousness – the raw feeling of an experience – arguably plays a key role in an immersive experience, as does higher-order consciousness, with the intensity of the rest varying depending on the depth of immersion or even on personal factors of the participant. Olafur Elliasson’s The Weather Project or James Turrell’s illusionary installations play with the user’s senses thus triggering phenomenal consciousness, while Ruairi Glynn’s performative ecologies, “a group of autonomous attention seeking sculptures”(Glynn 2008), is a great case where the participant has higher-order thoughts and responds to external information
But are these different states of consciousness products of different types of immersion? Observing game design immersion – a field that is primarily interlinked to the term – such experiences can be categorized in three main types : tactical, strategic and narrative(Adams 2004). Could this classification apply to architecture? Some of the techniques that Stephen Gage in The Wonder of trivial Machines(2006) suggests in order to keep the wonder of architecture continuous include keeping the learning experience of the user unending or increasing the complexity of our design. This type of experience would indisputably involve tactical immersion and strategic thinking. When it comes to narrative in responsive environments, while the architect choreographs the experience, there is no predefined storytelling and can be unpredictable when exposed to the participant. Interestingly, game design achieved narrative interaction with Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs)**, back in the 1970’s and with the technological advancements of the last decades created adventures of infinite possibilities “that lifted the user out of their current time and space and placed them within an altered trajectory” (Alsobrook, 2015).
In any case, immersion, a concept rather old, never ceases to be relevant as the concepts of time and user participation become central in our design. When Neil Spiller (1998) wrote his book Digital Dreams, he envisioned a shift of identity in our profession. The architect would become the creator of illusions; that is, of a fluid, event-based space, where information replaces currencies while psychology replaces the laws of physics. Two decades later, in an era where digital dreams have or are bound to come true, could that transformation be imminent? To answer this hypothesis would require delving into further investigation, in which it is also meaningful to add the role of immersive virtual environments in the equation.
* While the term is often used solely to describe an experience in VR, here it is used for any kind of physical or virtual experience of the responsive environments we produce.
**MUDs were initially computer games in which you entered a dark dungeon for adventure, but nowadays the term includes role-playing games over the internet or even chatting hangouts (Barrows et al., 1996)
Adams. E. 2004. Postmodernism and the three types of immersion, Available at: http://designersnotebook.com/Columns/063_Postmodernism/063_postmodernism.htm, accessed on 01.11.2016
Alsobrook, L. 2015. The spaces of narrative consciousness: Or, what is your event?, Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, 13: 3, pp. 239–244,doi: 10.1386/tear.13.3.239_1
Barrows. A,Levine Young M., Muder D., Kave D., Warfel K. 1996. Internet : The Complete Reference (2nd ed.). Osborne McGraw-Hill pp.245
Gage, S.A., 2006. The wonder of trivial machines. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23(6), pp.771–778.
Glynn, R., 2008. Conversational environments revisited. 19th European Meeting of Cybernetics & Systems Research. Available at: http://whoisin.net/postit/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/0802_PUB_CON_Conversational-Environments-Revisted-Cybernetic-Conference-Paper.pdf.
Kritikou A., 2013. Constructing the Experience, UCL MArch thesis
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2002. The Concept of Flow Optimal Experience and ItsRole in Development. Handbook of positive psychology, pp.89–105.
Spiller N., 1998. Tripping the Light Fantastic. Digital Dreams : Architecture and the New Alchemical Technologies, Ellipsis Arts, pp. 40-59
Tye, M., 1995. The Burning House. Thomas Metzinger (ed), Conscious Experience, Imprint Academic & Paderborn, pp. 81-90.