What Drives Us to Seek Out Immersive Experiences

by Laura Mingail • December 23rd, 2016

I have always been fascinated by insights into what drives us to make the choices that we do, and what motivates us to stay engaged with an experience. AMC’s Mad Men protagonist, Don Draper, shared his consumer insight in the famous ‘Carousel’ scene, that they were not just selling their client’s slide projector. Instead, they were offering a solution to the deep-rooted human desire to time-travel to past moments in time, with the slide projector technology:

“Technology is a glittering lure. But, there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”

We in the virtual reality industry are not just selling access to virtual experiences. We are building solutions for deep-rooted consumer needs. But how do we know the right way to develop VR content and technology, to maximize consumer engagement? It comes down to understanding what drives consumers to seek out immersive experiences.

No group in the world is better known for innovating based on a profound consumer understanding, than global design and innovation firm, IDEO. They are behind solutions like the first usable computer mouse, and the first Apple Watch camera band and charger, developed using what they have coined as human centered design.


Curious to understand how to apply human centered design thinking to innovate for the future of VR, I connected with IDEO’s leads on Immersive Experiences. Portfolio Director Peter Hyer oversees their media and technology group and holds a valuable background in architecture and gaming. Portfolio Director Dav Rauch, focuses on new product development in the space of immersive experiences, and holds a rich history in the film industry. In fact, he has already innovated for the future as far out as the 22nd century, leading the design of future user interfaces for blockbusters like Avatar and Iron Man.

Through a combination of explorations, consumer observations and other media work, IDEO has uncovered what they refer to as their Toolkit of human drivers, specific to why we seek out immersive experiences. Applying these drivers helps to evolve the creative focus beyond developing specific technology and features, to decision-making based on human-centered thinking:


The desire to discover is deeply embedded in us. Even babies explore their environments through their senses, before they can crawl. Beyond immersing visitors in new worlds for them to see, the drive for Discovery is also fulfilled through manipulating our senses like touch, as well as playing with the visitor’s size so that they can experience what they wouldn’t normally be able to. Rauch reinforced the importance for room-scale over 360, to satisfy the need for Discovery by allowing movement and more freedom to explore.


We are strongly motivated to become masters of things, but Hyer explains that we also “appreciate the sensation of progress.” It’s not as engaging to offer someone an incredible ability in VR, as it is to have them build on it. IDEO uncovered that allowing people to focus on developing one skill at a time, offering repetition of practice, and timely, positive, visible feedback, is how to feed their appetite for Mastery. And, allowing them to build a skill raises their time spent in the experiences, which increases the value that they get from the investment in the content.


Creation is not only a form of expression, but it is also a means to leave our mark on the world. Immersive mediums allow the creation process to become a full-body experience, as users design in the same environment that their creation lives. Users can feel a presence with what is being built, and a more personal connection to it. Offering the ability to create everything from art, to worlds, to stories, appeals to this driver.


Thought-leaders like Chris Milk have leveraged the power of empathy to engage millions with the possibilities of VR. The driver of Empathy, Hyer explains, is the desire to understand another person’s point of view and live their experiences. The most popular form of fulfilling this driver of Empathy is through powerful emotional narratives, but other ways to achieve this include shifting points of view in the content, and developing a juxtaposition between familiar and foreign things.


Shared experiences are how we build social connections. Insights into this driver highlight the extreme importance of multi-user experiences, as well as the value of being able to share what a user experiences with their acquaintances. Hyer explains that when solitary experiences are shared, and others from the users’ network have had similar experiences, it also satisfies the Connection driver. So, while 360 content doesn’t have multi-user functionality, if a 360 piece has a strong social media sharing component, it could help to satisfy the itch for Connection. Of course, being present with someone in an immersive experience is the best way to appeal to the Connection driver.


Hyer explains the driver of Transcendence as the need to “push the boundaries of our own sensation…to get out of our day-to-day routine, and go outside of ourselves.” By leaving ‘ourselves’ behind, the payoff is being able to perceive the real world differently, after the experience.

Immersive experiences that offer Transcendence can give consumers the chance to become something other than human, to explore the unknown. Playing with scale, senses, and even the rules of perception, help to take us to a different place.

Rauch explains that “Discovery is also a component of Transcendence… As we discover, we start to transcend from who we were.” Once we experience something eye-opening in VR, it has the power to evolve us.

Developing the Driver Hierarchy

Rauch shared from his experience that it’s valuable to identify primary, secondary and tertiary drivers. The way that you design the drivers to work together can make the immersive experience much more intriguing and engaging.

“When you combine different drivers, leading with one and switching to another can work really well. For example, Discovery is immediately attractive, people get it, but Discovery alone is very shallow. It will pull you in, but it won’t pull you very far. Pretty soon you’ll have to have another driver that will keep you engaged.” An example of the secondary driver in this case could be Mastery.

Just think of how the Empathy driver can be complemented with the ability to Master something new, from a person living in a culture different from yours. Or how the desire for Connection can be enhanced with the ability to experience Transcendence together.

And, the timing of when you begin to introduce your secondary and tertiary drivers impacts the experience. Rauch notes that “you need to be smart, to get past the awkwardness at just the right moments.” IDEO employs what they call Low-Fidelity Prototyping to quickly test their assumptions during the process of creation. This is a sort of micro test of one specific concept, like determining the right time to introduce the secondary driver to maximize user enjoyment of the experience. Validation Testing is a more complete test of the full experience or product, which happens later in the process.

By testing and building solutions for these deep-rooted consumer drivers, we will be forging strong, lasting sentimental consumer bonds with virtual reality as a whole.

Featured image from James Cameron’s Avatar.

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