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Mapping creative immersive media trends

Posted 10 Sep 2018

Earlier this year Limina was approached by Digital Catapult to find the most impactful immersive experience formats. The aim was to discover which have the most potential and those already demonstrating ability to be adopted by mainstream public.

As the immersive media sector grows and evolves, industry and consumers are looking for even more compelling experiences. With that growth, the need for a shared language and a way to categorise content from a creative perspective becomes ever more important. Therefore, establishing a language unique to immersive media, that isn’t derivative of other taxonomies, is crucial in order to set the sector up as an industry in its own right. We wanted to provide ideas to contribute to the beginning of a shared way to categorise types of immersive media.

We created a list of 130 of the most impactful immersive creative media experiences from the last 4-5 years, and after several months of research combining data, interviews, our own experience and feedback from focus groups, we identified 15 creative format trends with significant mainstream potential.

Fifteen trends explained

Activity simulator is an AR or VR format that entertains, informs or educates by recreating a real-world activity in a highly interactive way. This format tends to involve things that a user wouldn’t be able to do easily in daily lives, like climbing a rock face. Hand controllers have enabled a range of activity simulators to emerge as intuitive and natural feeling control is an important part of this format’s success.

Short fiction primarily uses VR to tell short, punchy stories. Characters and narrative are central and many techniques used for this format are borrowed from film. Embracing the limitations of mobile-based applications to create a fixed point of view narrative, this format is limited by file size restrictions on currently available technology platforms.

Data visualisers make big data more tangible. The format uses various forms of graphics for users to interact with data about the real world in either VR or AR. Driven by the availability of accurate and suitably formatted data, this format has multiple applications in real-world scenarios.

Immersive maker tools are about the user’s creativity, allowing them to make, share and experience their own creations through VR or AR. This format was very popular with our focus groups – as both a user and a spectator.

Re-visualising testimony experiences bring to life oral history and are usually centred around a key moment, for example re-visualising an emergency call or a specific memory in VR. Whilst the format initially appears to be much less interactive than some of the others on this list, audiences were highly likely to recommend it and keen to explore more immersive media in this way.

Treasure hunt experiences are built around the incentivised collection of digital items and are primarily geolocated and AR, such as Pokémon Go or The Gruffalo Spotter. The hunt can take place in the real world, amplified and editorialised with a form of augmented reality or in a fully virtual environment. This format is largely built around mobile AR and is immediately scalable.

Perspective shifter allows users to experience a simulation of a part of someone else’s life, either by ‘inhabiting’ their body or by ‘meeting’ them. Creators in this format tend to come from a documentary, journalism or activist background and have filmmaking skills, so stylistically tend to be heavily influenced by documentary film techniques. Stories can be strongly focussed on social change in an ‘empathy’ setting where lack of interactivity actually helps reinforce the emotional connection of the story. Audiences were highly engaged in this format feeling as though they were ‘in’ the story rather than simply watching it. We described some of these pieces as Empathy Encounters when they were specifically focussed around generating empathy.

Up close and personal experiences tend to be dance or movement pieces that focus on intimate and physical scenarios where the focus is on touch, physicality, movement and body language. Rather than use CGI avatars, which traditionally have lacked realistic human faces and emotions, live-action video capture is used, often through volumetric capture or using motion capture to create an avatar. This format’s potential is particularly clear with contemporary dance content as it plays to dance’s visceral immediacy. These experiences can be quite gendered, in regards to both the audience reaction and unconscious bias on the developers’ part.

Audio journeys are a form of audio augmented reality which adds an immersive layer of audio – 3D, spatial or binaural – onto a user’s physical surroundings to tell a story. Usually in the form of a mobile app, this creative format integrates sound, commentary and sometimes music into the physical environment.

Access all areas is a VR format about the exploration of an unfamiliar environment. It puts the user into situations or locations that are unique, often physically unreachable, inaccessible or even imaginary. Most access all areas pieces are 360 degree video content due to the feeling of authenticity, but 360 video can have drawbacks such as lower picture resolution. The biggest question for this format is if it can go beyond novelty or demo status.

Wonder in education are VR, AR and 360 degree projections that not only educate audiences on a particular topic, but simultaneously provoke feelings of awe. The feeling of wonder offers excitement and memorability to what might have otherwise been a dry, data-heavy topic. Planetariums are a clear example of this format that has decades of heritage. We identified huge potential with thousands of existing assets that would lend themselves to this sort of format.

Fantasy trips are surreal, fantastical journeys in VR defined by the experience transporting the user in order to elicit certain feelings, such as joy, fear, anticipation, awe, relaxation and amusement. Music is often a key element of this format. Usually shaped by graphics, rather than video, fantasy trips can be made with fairly low budgets and tend to be very popular with audiences.

Best seat in the house puts the user at the heart of a performance or an event. This could be in the centre of a boxing ring, the front row of a show or in the middle of a street festival. ‘Liveness’ is key to this format but barriers in filming, for example fairly low picture quality, can get in the way of the sense of presence.

Virtual hangouts is primarily a VR format that brings people together in the form of avatars in a variety of settings to interact through conversation and/or play. Our research demonstrated that virtual hangouts have a lot of mainstream potential when they are combined with a sense of purpose, for instance hosting a debate or seminar. However, they are currently more of a general social space.

Enhanced filters enable users to manipulate or incorporate AR elements into familiar images and video in ways that are fun or useful; Snapchat’s filters are the first example most people think of. This is a simple, accessible and already familiar mobile AR format that is widely used by the public.

Future impact

The research we carried out amongst a live audience found that the immersive maker tool, activity simulator and fantasy trip formats were the most popular. These three formats have creativity and personalisation at their core, creating scenarios where an audience members’ own individual narrative can emerge. This type of story – known as an ‘emergent narrative’ – creates a uniquely engaging experience for the user that can be described as storyliving or storydoing.

Learning through doing is a creative format that we think will play a major role in immersive media’s mid to long term future. Haptics are rapidly improving to the extent that learning to dance with a partner in VR could be entirely possible in the near future. The other future trend for immersive, which has less interactivity but just as much possibility, is time travel. Imagine using volumetric capture to steal a moment in time and relive it again and again in a totally realistic VR environment. Time travel could also be explored through capturing people and stories, using volumetric capture to build AI versions of our ancestors.

The 15 different formats represent the divergent ways a growing industry is creating content with myriad opportunities to develop scalable, exciting and engaging formats.

Read more in our reports, Immersive Content Formats for Future Audiences and Evaluating Immersive User Experience and Impact.