The goal for ancestors gathered around a fire, game designers creating immersive 3-D environments, and eLearning designers has always been the same—to capture learners’ attention and create the illusion of being there. Great storytelling is at the heart of engaging eLearning.

A great story not only engages the interest of audience members, it makes them feel as if they are present at the scene. Immersive storytelling can do that more compellingly, more convincingly, than any medium we’ve used until now. But immersive storytelling is different in more ways than its ability to engage nearly all of our senses and our total attention. Exploring immersive stories can offer new ways for eLearning designers and developers to engage learners and, potentially, change behavior.

What makes immersive storytelling different?

In conventional storytelling, the story is separate from the audience. Whether reading a written story, hearing a storyteller, or watching a video story, the audience member is passive.

In immersive stories, there is no “audience”; everyone is a character taking part as the story unfolds and potentially influences what happens. For eLearning designers, this presents an opportunity to create realistic scenarios that learners will actually experience as participants.

A traditional story follows a narrative arc. It’s linear, unless it’s a “choose your own adventure” story, which allows readers to make choices, similar to branching scenarios. Even these, though, progress along predetermined paths. All learners or audience members have access to the same events, information, and results, usually in the same order.

An immersive story is not linear, and the results are partly or wholly under participants’ control. In a fully immersive environment, the characters can influence what happens and when. Even in a less interactive environment, a 360-degree video, for example, the learners control where they look, what they notice, and often, where they move. The experience is different for each participant.

The audience in a traditional story has the viewpoint offered by the creator of the story: The story might be presented by a narrator, a single character, or by several characters offering their viewpoints at different times. But the audience doesn’t select a viewpoint or influence other characters’ behavior or perspective.

Participants in an immersive story might interact with other characters and with objects in the environment. Each participant brings a unique perspective and might move through the environment differently, interact with different characters, and therefore have a unique experience.

Options for immersive environments

It’s possible to create immersive stories in any of these environments:

  • Computer-generated virtual reality: Fully immersive virtual reality environments generated by game engines (e.g., Unity or Unreal) allow learners to interact with the environment, so this platform can be used for realistic scenarios and training aimed at behavior change, building empathy, practicing soft skills like communication, providing coaching or feedback, and more.
  • 360-degree video: This immersive environment allows learners to look around and read content that is part of the video, but not to interact with items or characters in the video. It reflects a real environment that has been captured with a video camera.
  • 360-degree photography: A 360-degree image is created with a still camera—the images are stitched together with special software. Learners can look around but not actually change anything.

Third-party tools exist that enable adding hotspots to 360-degree video and photo environments. The hotspots enable functionality such as:

  • Asking learners questions on material they’ve seen and providing feedback
  • Providing information or links to resources, such as a downloadable PDF or a video
  • Allowing learners to choose among options, creating branching scenarios

Designers and developers should keep in mind that immersive environments are a relatively new technology that is still in flux. The cost of creating high-quality immersive experiences, while potentially still high, is dropping. Creating immersive stories with 360-degree video is already in reach for many organizations. A 360-degree video or photo story can be part of a larger content package that includes more conventional eLearning formats; even adding a short immersive experience can galvanize learners and boost engagement.

Looking to the future

Nvidia is working on a way to create AI-generated virtual environments from video. These immersive environments could become useful in games and eLearning. According to The Verge, the AI technology generates graphics from short video clips; a game engine is not used. It generates new versions of the images that could show different angles, perhaps, or place an object into a different location. Nvidia has created a video game demo using this technology. Players move through the environment but cannot interact with it.

Join us!

Dive into immersive storytelling and training at Realities360, June 2527, 2019, in San Jose, California. This eLearning Guild conference focuses exclusively on using AR and VR in training and education and emphasizes hands-on experiences.

Don’t miss keynoter Graham Roberts, director of immersive platforms storytelling for The New York Times. His talk, "The Future of Immersive Storytelling," is on June 26.

Additional resources

The Progress of Immersive Journalism, by Henry Keyser

VR and AR: The Art of Immersive Storytelling and Journalism, by Emory Craig and Maya Georgieva