As a fiction writer (a.k.a. story-teller), I want to take a moment to remind us all of that (hopefully) familiar feeling of immersion when reading a great book. I’m not being a luddite. Just take a second and think back to that experience. The writing was so good you lost track of time. The fictional characters were real people, perhaps just like you or your neighbor down the street. You could hardly wait to turn the page. Your foot was tapping. Your heart rate went up. You let yourself be whisked away, and that was the point. Remember? Good.
Now ask yourself, what could make that better? Perhaps being a part of the story yourself?
“Immersive Entertainment” is a term being thrown around by everyone from plasma screen TV manufacturers to mom-and-pop podcasters. Like the term “new media,” there is no solid, agreed-upon definition of the term, but the buzzword still peaks interest in the media-worn consumer.
Any sci-fi fan worth their salt can name a dozen hedonistic planets, solid holograms, or pleasure robots that portray our human fantasies of virtual reality. I call these ‘entertainment realities,’ and they seem to be our goal. We take small steps toward these entertainment edens. Today’s developers are concentrating on previously ignored senses in order to make the story experience seem “more real.”
Storytelling, the mother of all entertainment, first relied on sound. Printed media came, relying on sight. The vistas and the music became enveloping, whisking us away further into the story. Now there are high-definition flat screens that add special backlighting to supposedly increase depth perception, which the manufacturers boast will make you feel “like you’re there” more than ever before. Movement and touch are being added; Your chair or at the very least your game controller can vibrate when your avatar takes a hit or there is an explosion in a TV show. Smell-o-vision will probably soon emerge, and every show will have code that activates certain chemicals in the connected surround-smell modules in the room. Turn it up to superblast and you’ll be able to taste it too. Most of the top Googles on “Immersive Entertainment” are about these mock virtual reality video gaming or extra bells and whistles (lights, sounds, chair buzzing) added to your living room.
Entertainment has moved far beyond the lonely one-hour-a-week episode on TV or console game. Now, you can read blogs “written by” the fictional characters in that TV show, you can watch extra footage on websites, you can join in discussions and post video tributes on YouTube or Viddler, you can game on-line with strangers. Just recently I noticed that members of Twitter, a free on-line instant-message type of service, can now follow Chuck Bartowski, the main character of this season’s break-out hit “Chuck.” Chuck is a mild-mannered tech support guy who is forced into international spying.
I follow Chuck on Twitter.
I don’t know what I’m expecting out of it. Chuck doesn’t reply to any messages, he just puts them out, and infrequently at that. He doesn’t read anyone else’s messages. Basically, the writers of the show are using social networking media to promote the show. I know this. But I have to admit, when I was browsing the Twitter site and I found “Chuck Bartowski” listed as if he were a living, breathing person and not just a character with an actor’s face, I was excited. I love that show. Plus, Chuck is exactly my type of guy: geeky, yet handsome; masculine, but empathetic (he’s a bit of an underachiever, but I could work on that!) It excited me that I could be exposed to this quirkily dreamy anti-hero in an extra, seemingly more personal way than just watching him on my DVR or reading a fake blog post. I can pretend that Chuck is in my small social network, that Chuck is messaging me personally, that we used to work together but now live in separate states but we keep in touch. I know the instant messages, called “Tweets” on Twitter, are just as fake as a fictional character blog post, but somehow Twitter and tweets as social media are still so new and fresh that Chuck’s messages just seem more real. This makes my heart speed up.
I’m sure it will get old. My heart will slow down. Reading a thriller is a lot different the second time around. Chuck is the lucky character to be the first to send me all a-Twitter. My first fictional love was Phineas of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace; he stole my teenage soul. Phineas still holds a special place in my heart. But A Separate Peace was one of “those” books for me, an entertainment reality that I will never forget. Will instant messages and a silly TV show compare to that experience? Only time will tell. But I intend to keep my mind and eyes open to Chuck, to keep my preferences for the printed novel in check, and give the new social media world a chance to whisk me away.