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Transport people to alternate real or magical worlds with or without multi-sensory stimulation

“Reality has always been too small for the human imagination. We’re always trying to transcend "

~ Brenda Laurel


Imagine you’re swimming in a quiet bay. 

No one else is there.

You can’t think of a more relaxing place to be. The scene is awash with greens and blues, and you watch the sunlight dance across the water’s surface. 

The water feels cool against your skin, trickling and rippling as you move. There’s a salty tang in the air, which you can taste as you breathe it in. You can smell seaweed. You occasionally dive in and you can hear sounds of snapping, crunching, thumping, grunting, clicks, whistles, songs and more emanating from animals that vary in size from shrimps to whales.


Water has impacted all your five senses, and the outside world fades away.

You are there

If you have ever experienced anything close to that, you have experienced a momentary disassociation from the awareness of the “real” world.

If my words and video were powerful enough, you also momentarily left your chair and travelled to the bay with your imagination. That is also (a much less) immersive experience. 

By drawing upon insights from many domains (including music, film, literary works, audio, virtual reality, and perhaps most importantly, game design) we have five non-mutually exclusive approaches to design immersive experiences to influence behaviours: 

Spatial/Temporal Immersion: Immersion as a feeling Being there 

Perceptual Immersion: Immersion as "Being surrounded by multi-sensory stimulation"

Game immersion: immersion as "Being inside the “magic circle” 

Story Immersion: Immersion as "Being lost in a story" 

Social Immersion: Immersion as a feeling "Being there, engaged together" 

Immersion as “Being there”.

The notion of presence suggests that individuals, when exposed to cues from a technological device, might temporarily build an “illusion” in their minds through which they feel physically and spatially located in this virtual environment.

Presence is most commonly defined as the feeling of “being there” (when you are not) or that some feels real (when it’s not).

A common technique to achieve that is Environmental Overlays. A good attempt is Fitbit Adventures which provides a daily walking challenge based on a real location. It attempts to create a sense of immersion by using  photos of the real locations, such as Yosemite mountain. These photos dynamically adjust when you rotate your phone to make the user feel like they are there. Fitbit Adventures also leverage our innate desire to explore: Along each route, users can uncover more photos and collect fun facts, as well as health and fitness tips, and mini challenges.

Fitbit Adventures

Spatial immersion has also the potential to support behaviour change solutions that aim to close the psychological distance between us and geographically distant consequences and people (e.g., by building empathy) as well as the distance between us and temporally distance risks or benefits (e.g., by showing the future self or future environments). 

For instance, environmental issues are often also perceived as complex, abstract, and distant (temporally and sometimes geographically). Because of that, they are also difficult to imagine

An experiment illustrates how VR can influence real world behaviour: researchers wanted to compare the effects of people virtually cutting down a tree, versus just hearing a graphic description of the same event. They wanted to test how many paper napkins each group would use when the researcher “accidentally” spilled some water after they had finished with the experiment. Those in the treatment group who “embodied” the virtual lumberjack picked up 20% less paper napkins to clean the spill than those in the control.

VR simulation of cutting down a tree (Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab)

Another example relates to temporal discounting - the widespread tendency to underweight the impact of future outcomes compared to present ones. There are several explanations of why this happens, including the simple fact we fail to resist the pull of immediate rewards. Another explanation involves people’s perception of their own future self. 

It is suggested that if the future self is psychologically similar to who we are now, we should be concerned about its fate much as we are about our current well-being. In contrast, if there is little similarity between who we are now and who we expect to be, we may think about the future self as if it were another person entirely (a stranger) favouring the current self when presented with a tradeoff. 

An experiment have demonstrated that making the expression of an aged avatar (from frowning to smiling) contingent on the amount saved can influence present behaviour. Sometimes increasing vividness with images or mental imagery (make it obvious) might suffice. However, a recent study found that this kind of intervention is more effective when using VR.

Virtual reality avatar experiment.  Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Immersion as "Being surrounded by multi-sensory stimulation"

Another type of immersion involves the number of senses stimulated. When defining immersion as the subjective sense of being surrounded or experiencing multi-sensory stimulation (also referred as perceptual immersion) this experience can be measured objectively by counting the number of senses involved, and the degree to which inputs from the external physical environment are shut out.

For example, watching a movie at a theatre provides a more immersive experience because of the large screen, and the lights off.  

The system’s ability to immerse us can be enhanced with high resolution, realistic graphics, sounds and haptic feedback. This explains why product companies aim to increase the screen to body ratio of their products (be it a phone, television or a laptop) and create 360° or audiovisual experiences. 

For example, the social network TikTok presents information in a full-screen format instead of a listing format. By doing so it puts the main focus on the content, so you’re fully immersed in the video and do not get distracted by any other videos.

User Interface of Duoyin (TikTok), Kuaishou and Miaopai.

With the objective of improving people’s well-being by making users feel like they are in nature (an example of spatial presence), Portal app leverages cinematic visuals, 3D audio, and smart light integration. Also note how when selecting a destination the user interface seeks to give a feeling to “entering” that destination by zooming in to it. 


In game design, perceptual immersion is generally referred to as Game feel, the intangible, tactile sensation experienced when interacting with video games.

While it has a loose definition, players generally refer to it as a “satisfying” feeling. An example is the audio-visual sensation when successfully hitting the tiles at the right rhythm of Nintendo’s exergame Fitness Boxing.

Fitness Boxing, Nintendo Switch

The next generation of exergames is already moving beyond visual and sound effects. Quell Hero, for example, stands out from other fitness gaming products for its resistance bands that make punching the air around you more strenuous. The waistband also has haptic feedback, to make players feel each blow from the onscreen enemies.

Systems will have different degrees of immersive potential.

Going back to our beautiful and secluded bay, think of a system/technology with a high immersive potential as one that would act like water. 

For example, while the home cycling app Peloton has offered Scenic unguided outdoor virtual rides with the objective to immerse users, only a minority of members have taken a Scenic class. This was due to the constant playback speed which felt a bit unrealistic as well as lack of powerful music. In response, Peloton is now relaunching its Scenic content with new features exclusively for All-Access members, including instructor-led runs and rides filmed in picturesque locations such as Big Sur, Hawaii, and New Mexico.

Peloton's Scenic Rides

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have higher immersion potential and can facilitate a strong sense of space (Spatial immersion) by providing a sense of realism by emulating the real world. 

Yet, AR has two major limitations when it comes to Immersive Design: field of view and input. As such, content can only aspire to be a window into another world. VR technology promises higher levels of immersion; and haptic interfaces can enable users to “touch” and “feel” virtual objects that are simulated in the environment.

Technology clearly does work as a catalyst in the immersion process. However, immersion is not simply the outcome of the intensity of the sensory stimulation. 

The third kind of immersion involves the power of play, beyond the sensorial experience.

Immersion as a "Being there, engaged together"

Social Presence refers to the degree to which one perceives the presence of others through a medium (e.g, virtual environment). A sense of social presence means people feel not only that they are “there”, but also “engaged together”. This will depend on the system’s ability to transmit visual and verbal cues (e.g., physical distance, gaze, postures, facial expressions, voice intonation, and so on). 

We know that social features and interventions that meet our psychological needs or belonging and status (competition) are key for behaviour change intervention. However, not all interventions provide a feeling of social presence.

In the context of health and fitness, a good example is, again, Peloton. 

Peloton's Live Leaderboard

Peloton takes the social aspect to the next level: from live leaderboards, to virtual high fives between riders, to instructors that call you out for working hard and pushing yourself, Peloton makes you feel like you aren't alone in your living room.

Immersion as "Being inside the Magic Circle"

When we play we enter the “magic circle”, accepting new rules and laws that do not exist in the real world (e.g., you cannot touch the football with your hands, only your feet).

As noted by Edward Castronova in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, the boundary delineating this space "can be considered a shield of sorts, protecting the fantasy world from the outside world”. 

While most gamified experiences leverage surface elements of games (e.g., points, badges, etc.), game immersion requires encouraging users to step into, and accept, a world governed by different rules. 

An important and widely researched phenomenon related to game worlds is the "Proteus effect". It describes a change in behaviour that aligns to the behaviours and traits of their virtual representation (Avatars), even after leaving a virtual simulation.

The effect creates an illusion of ownership and it has important implications for behaviour change interventions.

For example, a recent study found that an avatar’s athleticism had a significant and systematic effect on users’ heart rate and perceived exertion. This is a promising opportunity for designers and developers of VR exercise systems to make users perceive high-intensity exercises less physically strenuous.

The real world (left) and the virtual scene consisting of the non-athletic, the medium and the athletic avatars (from left to right) on a stationary bicycle.

When attempting to immerse people into virtual worlds (enter the magic circle) the design of the user interface plays a key role. For example, the interface to start a game often lives in an in-between space that acknowledges the existence of the world inside the game by using the game’s characters and aesthetics, but operates based on the rules of the real world. 

Skyrim and S.O.S. Source: Gabriel Valdivia

Take for example these two games: Skyrim and S.O.S. 

Skyrim (on the left) shows an inventory with floating text alerts around the screen, using the typeface Futura for a game that takes place in mediaeval times. Although the menu is intuitive and efficient, it breaks immersion: it reminds the player that dragons aren’t real. On the right, S.O.S. relies on a more immersive schema that pulls out a physical map in the player’s point of view and requires the use of a radio to communicate with other players. 

As these two games illustrate, game immersion often happens in synergy with a narrative, which is an immersive experience on its own.

Immersion as "Being lost in a story"

Social psychologist Melanie Green has captured the power of fictional stories in the concept of ‘narrative transportation': the experience of becoming so caught up in a narrative that the real world fades away.

Being in this state of immersion makes us more open to having our beliefs and attitudes changed because it transports individuals into a different reality, thus reducing consideration of the positive and negative aspects of the information provided. 

Stories (real or fictional) have delivered immersive experiences even with a limited amount of sensory input for centuries (such as in the case of oral stories, or books). 

Game design takes stories to the next level because of the level of interactivity given to players. They turn a passive audience into active players who can now make meaningful choices (e.g., Should I save the NPC or let him/her die?). 

Story immersion can also lead to nuanced types of immersive experiences. By leveraging our innate desire for exploration and information, players can feel the crave to know what’s going to happen next. Stories can also trigger imaginative immersion by giving the person an opportunity to exercise his/her imagination and emotional immersion, when an individual can relate to the presented situation and is emotionally attached to the characters or the story. 


A behaviour change app that leverages different types of immersion is the gamified fitness app Zombies, Run! which immerses users into a zombie apocalypse narrative.


Only a few have survived the zombie epidemic. You are a Runner en-route to one of humanity’s last remaining outposts. They need your help to gather supplies, rescue survivors, and defend their home.”


Zombies, Run! leverages the power of story with a Narrative Overlay (you are no longer running to get fit, but because you are escaping from zombies); by doing so you enter a magic circle, and thus adopt a ludic mindset by accepting the new rules. All of a sudden “aversion” is fun, and you need to speed up when you are chased by zombies; it is also slightly more perceptual than other fitness apps as it leverages both video and audio feedback and uses voice actors to make the characters and story more authentic and immersive.

Stories don’t need to be magical. For example Apple have recently launched “Time to Walk”, an inspiring new audio walking experience to encourage users to walk more often. Each original Time to Walk episode invites users to immerse themselves in a walk alongside influential and interesting people as they share thoughtful and meaningful stories, photos, and music.


Time To Walk, Apple Watch

How will you immerse your users?

Related Tactics

Environmental Overlay

Immerse users into an alternate real environment with a visual overlay to create a feeling of “being there”.

The fitness app Fitbit offers walking challenges based on real locations displayed with visual overlays.


Narrative Overlay

Immerse your audience into a fictional narrative to contextualise (boring) activities and connect in an emotionally engaging way.

The gamified fitness app Zombies,Run! immerses users into a zombie apocalypse to encourage them to stay fit.


Proteus Effect

Enable people to create and customise a virtual identity as an imaginary self-representation (and eventually socialise through it), to influence their real-world behaviours.

A recent study found that an avatar’s athleticism had a significant and systematic effect on users’ heart rate and perceived exertion.


Further Readings

Physiological and Perceptual Responses to Athletic Avatars while Cycling in Virtual Reality

Association for Computing Machinery | Kocur et al

Behavioral Framework of Immersive Technologies (BehaveFIT): How and Why Virtual Reality can Support Behavioral Change Processes

Frontiers in Virtual Reality | Wienrich et al

Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behavior

Computers in Human Behavior | Ahn et al

Looking Back From the Future: Perspective Taking in Virtual Reality Increases Future Self-Continuity

Front. Psychol | Ganschow et. al


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