Our insight researcher and one of our strategists, went to London's latest immersive experiences. This format of experiences has been around for a while, so why are they rapidly increasing across the art, brand and retail worlds?
Immersive experiences blew up post-lockdown with people's desire to go out, connect, and be pulled out of the lockdown limitations, coupled with the increased familiarity with screens and digital experiences. The timing was right for this trend to start to take off. The success of the 'Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit', the 'Atelier des Lumières' or the ongoing popularity of 'Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms' has further opened the door for many more immersive experiences looking to follow their footsteps.
Our team visited two new experiences: Frameless and the Outernet, situated on either end of Oxford Street, to see what they offer as each provides a different stated purpose - the Outernet focusing on creating new experiences for the "music, arts, culture and creators," and Frameless being a brand new "art experience".
Below our team gives personal thoughts, critiques, and key takeaways for those hoping to learn from and build on this trend.
Frameless, Britain's 'largest immersive art experience' opened last October. The idea consists of four separate galleries, starting with 'Beyond Reality', a mirrored room with Surrealist and Symbolist paintings projected onto the walls and ceiling.
Next was the Impressionist 'Colour in Motion', the most interactive of the four, where "advanced motion tracking" prompts digitised 'brushstrokes' leaves to move when walking through the space.
'Colour in Motion'
The third and largest room, 'The World Around Us', projected famous landscapes, still lifes, and architectural spaces with a dramatic soundtrack.
'The World Around Us'
Lastly, 'The Art of Abstraction' holds Abstract Expressionist pieces which are projected onto a 'maze' of disjointed translucent screens. This gallery stood out compared to the others, as it seemed designed with a reinterpretation of the depicted art movement and enabled gusts to interpret the art differently. However, due to the rest of the exhibition, we were left wondering if that was intentional or just a happy accident.
'The Art of Abstraction'
Each room had a panel outside, a small thumbnail of each displayed painting, and a brief curator's note of why they had been selected. However, there needed to be more context or encouragement to engage further than just viewing the projections to understand the artists or their works more meaningfully.
Frameless claims that they challenge how people experience art and make it more "accessible and inclusive." But with one adult ticket costing you £32 (pre-booking fee), compared to many free major art galleries/ museums, it feels more like an afterthought than an actual intention.
In a The Guardian interview, Co-curator, Rosie O'Connor shared the approach behind Frameless. She stated it is a space for people who are "intimidated by going into a traditional gallery space." She suggested that many people are unsure what they should feel when looking at a painting, which is why the visuals and music guide how to feel about a piece of artwork. But in reality, we felt the music forced an interpretation without allowing for personal engagement. Most rooms felt intended for surface-level spectatorship rather than being thought-provoking or inspiring. She also discusses how phones prevent people from being able to "just stand and look" to get an emotional connection, which may be true. Still, the space seemed intended more as an Instagram content opportunity than a space to engage as most people we observed sat on the floor scrolling through their phones rather than looking at the artwork.
Not only were her comments somewhat condescending about the public's ability to interpret art independently, but they also did not reflect the design and experience we observed. Whilst claiming to be "immersive", the repetitive view of art projected onto the walls with music playing led us to question what " immersive " means and whether this lives up to it. We felt we hadn't gained much upon leaving and were pretty underwhelmed.
What really makes or breaks an immersive experience? Immersive experiences, whether aimed at educating or simply entertaining, pull you out of your everyday 'autopilot', creating a lasting impression that makes you emotionally engaged even when you leave - not dissimilar to the goal of a good painting hanging on the wall, arguably. By comparing Frameless with other immersive rooms such as The Kusama Infinity Rooms, which evoke a sense of wonder, with the use of light and mirrors providing an unexpected point of view, you question how it was achieved, where you are, the sense of depth, and what exactly it is you are looking at.
Unfortunately, Frameless failed to create this wonder. After the initial 'wow', nothing took its place, which could be seen in how others interact with the space, nor does it seem to be living up to its democratic mission statement. Tellingly, the entire experience is designed so that you feel more drawn to the gift shop at the beginning and end of the journey than to any artistic 'experiences'.
Outernet, another incarnation of the immersive digital experience, describes itself as a "global media and entertainment company" rethinking how audiences and experiences come together within the entertainment district—focused creatively sharing music, film, arts, gaming and retail through technology.
Based opposite Tottenham Court Road Station, the Outernet is made up of a series of different spaces, all with the entertainment focus ranging from immersive culture and brand experiences on their 8K screens (which is free to visit) to events hosting 2000 people, and there is even a designated licensed busking area. The London venue is the first to open, with the Los Angeles and New York following. Artists have already started using the space with DJ TSHA teaming up with illustrator and animator Alice Bloomfield for a five-screen music experience. Other uses of the space include a free mindfulness experience to support Londoners with a holistic approach to relief.
On our visit, we walked around the 'The Now Building' and the adjacent 'Now Trending' space after attending Frameless. We, like many others, were pulled out of the rush of nearby busy shopping streets to stop and contemplate what we were looking at. We experienced 'Lovin' London!' in 'The Now Building', a celebration of local creatives embodying why London is so unique, which encouraged you to stop and consider where you were, and what was going on around you.
'The Now Building'
The fish tank in the 'Now Trending' building provided a moment of calm in total contrast to the surrounding urban landscape.
Whilst the experience was not only free (talk about accessible), there were a lot of people there, standing and looking at the images. Even though these spaces were outside (and it was a cold winter evening), people were visibly interested and engaged. One big surprise was that only a few people were looking at their phones; after the initial photos had been taken, people sat down on moveable benches and watched, interacted, moved around and socialised because the space encouraged it.
The busy location used the hum of the city as background noise, taking away the pressure to act or feel a certain way, resulting in anyone walking in and feeling comfortable and immersed right away. Unlike Frameless, where you thought you had to be quiet in fear of disturbing others or feeling the pressure to sit in a corner so your shadow wouldn't disturb others, this felt like an inherently social space. The Outernet permitted people to interact together, commenting on what they were watching.
When juxtaposed side by side, it becomes clear that making something "immersive" must go beyond simply using technology or presenting imagery and settings to viewers. With more immersive opportunities and unconventional experience formats becoming increasingly prevalent within the arts, entertainment, and retail (eg Flannels Oxford Street store where the store's extioria-covered screens display art for those passing by), designers go beyond the technology and screens and look at what makes a successful immersive experience and why they are successful.
Our tips for a successful immersive experience
To summarise, due to the growing number of immersive experiences, it is no longer enough to put the title "immersive". Instead, experiences must first and foremost think about and be designed for the people who are going to be immersed in them.