Engagement and Immersion in Digital Experience

I have just been re-listening to the radio programme ‘The Digital Human’ first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 9th of April 2013, which will certainly be better known in the UK as the day that Margaret Thatcher died. It’s one of an informative series, this episode being entitled ‘Getting Lost in a Sensation’. The programme, hosted by academic and journalist Aleks Krotoski, contains some fascinating examples of digital art works that exploit sensory mechanisms to create engaging and provocative experience. The more successful of the experiences cited seeming to be those that rely on limited sensory input (eg only sound or only scent) which the human mind uses as a prompt to fill in the gaps via imagination – a phenomenon well known to radio broadcasters.

The programme also features a number of perceptual insights provided by Dr Harry Witchel, Discipline Leader in Physiology at Brighton & Sussex Medical School – currently conducting research  into ‘Psychobiology’. For example: “Engagement often depends upon opportunities for people to do something.  When people do something, that usually immerses them and engages them more. There is a whole theory in Consciousness Studies that says that  the way that we experience the world is based on our understanding of how we’re going to interact with the world. Many game designers and many people in digital experiences are looking to go even further than engagement to get to immersion itself. That is the sensation that the digital experience that you are currently undergoing is life itself – that is what you’re doing at that moment  and there is nothing else.”  Also – “Scientists are really interested in the idea that we might be able to triangulate between subjective experience, that is with questionnaires, behaviour  – which is say, whether or not you continue watching a digital experience  – and the physics of it, so whether something’s colourful. And part of what scientists are trying to do is figure out if there is a scientific way of getting to what is engaging for individuals and possibly for mass audiences.” 

These observation are particularly resonant for me as someone who has spent many years creating digital interactive experiences in the commercial world and has often wondered about the possibility of modeling engagement through interaction. Although much has been written on the subject of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), this body of knowledge is generally aimed at facilitating communication between user interface and user in order to execute a given task. Thus commonly accepted interface design rules have emerged such as legibility and proximity of related elements. In my current studies I am not interested in making a well communicated user interface to facilitate task execution – more in creating an interaction experience that is intuitive, transparent and engaging to the point of immersion in the sense that a book can be immersive for as long as we choose to give it our full attention.

The ‘Getting Lost in a Sensation’ episode of ‘The Digital Human’ can be found here.

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