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Immersive design describes the activity of a new generation of designers who work inclusively across all story-driven media, from film and interactive media to live audience environments. Immersive designers deal simultaneously with virtual and dimensional environments and who and what they contain; and with time-based narrative and story space.
Alex McDowell coined the phrase 'immersive design' in 2007 in order to frame a new discussion around a design discipline that uniquely addresses story-based media within the context of digital and virtual technologies. Together McDowell and museum director Chris Scoates co-directed 5D | The Future of Immersive Design conference in Long Beach 2008, laying the groundwork for immersive design to be a distinct design philosophy and thus be subject to wider scrutiny, development and promotion. 5D has since become a forum and community representing a broad range of cross-media designers with its intent based in education, cross-pollination and the development of an expanding knowledge base.
Having only been actively promoted as a design philosophy to be discussed internationally in recent years, immersive design is very much in its infancy, but as a term it has already been appropriated for the purposes of describing design for narrative media and the process of Worldbuilding. The rapid rise and recognition of transmedia and virtual production emphasises the need for immersive design as the single most fluid cross-media discipline.
The immersive design process attempts to describe two simultaneous entwined tasks:
- To design intact worlds that are coherent, have an interior logic, contain history, geography, surface, metaphor, respond to and drive narrative, and allow an audience to be fully immersed in both environment and story. By definition an immersive designer is engaged in the embedding of story into environment, whether for passive or interactive media, in virtual or physical worlds.
- To put in place a non-linear immersive design process that provides a fully collaborative, often digital and virtual production environment for creators and the work that they are creating.
Many in the industry believe that it is recent developments in technology that have enabled both of these aspects of immersive design to exist; technology consisting of design tools that create a virtual workspace (an intuitive three-dimensional design language and vision) that allows for non-linear workflows, broadening the opportunity of what can be created. However, others argue that both of these aspects have always existed, believing that recent developments in technology have simply allowed these aspects to fit more easily into conventional mainstream production workflow. In relation to this, Alex McDowell has commented that "It is probably true to say that the designer has always harnessed the best tools available, but that the potential of design tools based in digital technology and allowing for the interaction and manipulation of dimensional space fundamentally advances the craft."
One issue within the philosophical discussion of immersive design is how much immersive design should define itself by new technology, and by doing so, whether it narrows down its own possibilities as well as broadening them. Alex McDowell expanded on this by commenting "What is clear is that technology will keep changing, and that the designer must become increasingly adept and adaptative while remaining focused on the creative intent."