As a result of our deepest human desires, throughout media history there is a persistent research to create a feeling of being present somewhere else. From the oldest panoramas and 3D to the most recent Augmented and Virtual Reality, all media technologies committed themselves to the task of producing the sensation of “being on the very spot”, of being immersed somewhere different from reality.
Etymologically derived from Latin immergo (literally, to plunge, sink into a liquid), the English word immersion is still used in its literal meaning. In 1997, researcher and writer Janet Murray, in her overview of the future of storytelling Hamlet on the Holodeck gives a new sense to the literal meaning of the term when she remarks that as human beings “we seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus” (Murray, 1997, 98-99). Murray employed the adjective immersive in a metaphor to argue that those engaging in such experiences are not only sinking in another state but are also affected in their consciousness. This metaphorical shift in meaning is not the only example of the growing correspondence of immersion with several other concepts such as engagement (Bentham, 1871), presence (Minsky, 1980), flow (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990), involvement (Calleja, 2007), incorporation (Calleja, 2011), absorption (Wolf, 2012), or aesthetic illusion (Wolf, 2013). For instance, in his Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion Oliver Grau speaks of “a high-grade feeling of immersion, of presence” (Grau, 2003, 7) while Werner Wolf in “Aesthetic Illusion” describes immersion as “an experiential, predominantly emotional diving into a represented world” (Wolf, 2013, 23) where aesthetic illusion is nothing more than “a state of imaginary immersion” (16).
In the fundamental Narrative as Virtual Reality 2, independent scholar Marie-Laure Ryan points out that the adjective immersive has been used from two points of view: one focussing on the perception of the human subject, the other highlighting the quality of the technological devices or narrative strategies that are able to produce such immersion (9). What these two conceptual approaches share is the fact the awareness that immersive objects, media and art forms all engender experiences, feelings and affect subjects on a physical or on an emotional level. It is from this initial differentiation that the terminological distinction between the experience of the subject and the quality endangered by technological tools resulted to be necessary. In 2018, scholars William Sherman and Alain Craig proposed to use mental immersion to describe the state of engagement and of the suspension of disbelief and physical immersion to refer to the property of Mixed Reality to enhance and augment the participants’ senses (10). Only in Film in Depth, film scholar Adriano D’Aloia distinguishes between a “sense of immersion”, “experiences of immersion” (95) and “immersivity”, the “technical means and special effects” that are necessary to transmit “the impression of really being in the space of the fictional events depicted and an intense sensorial experience” (89). Along these lines, Maurizio Forte explains that immersivity is a property of Virtual Reality systems and explains that the level of immersivity establishes the sense of embodiment, presence and immersion of the perceiving subject (70).
Calleja, Gordon. 2007. “Revising Immersion: A Conceptual Model for the Analysis of Digital Game Involvement”, DiGRA 07 (ed.). Proceedings of the 2007 DiGRA International Conference. Situated Play, University of Tokyo, September 24-28. Tampere: Digital Games Research Association. p. 83-90. Available online at: http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/07312.10496.pdf
Calleja, Gordon. 2011. In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper.
Forte, Maurizio. 2012. “Immersive 3D Applications”. In: Silberman, Neil Asher (Ed.): The Oxford Companion to Archaeology Vol. 2 (Second Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 69-72.
Minsky, Marvin. 1980. “Telepresence”, Omni 2 (9). p. 45-51. Available online at: https://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/Telepresence.html
Murray, Janet H. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Wolf, Mark J.P. 2012. Building Imaginary Worlds. The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge.
Wolf, Werner. 2013. “Aesthetic Illusion”, Wolf, Werner; Bernhart, Walter & Mahler, Andreas (eds.). Immersion and Distance. Aesthetic Illusion in Literature and Other Media. Amsterdam: Rodopi. p. 1-63.