What IS ‘Immersive Experience’?

Total Immersion in Brazil

Can Internet Technology, Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality allow us to experience reality? As an old philosopher, I’m used to questions about reality – what is it?; is it knowable?; can it be experienced?; if so, how? These questions came to mind recently, when I moved next door to the classic Germania Place in Chicago, now covered by posters advertising an Immersive Experience of Van Gogh’s life and art. Van Gogh (one of my favorite artists) is all around me – now even on the opening screen of my Microsoft laptop. Lighthouse Immersive from Toronto is the production company for this particular “immersive” version of Van Gogh, which has many competitors. Martin Bailey gives a good overview. He underscores that these are not the real Van Gogh, but doctored up and sweetened shows. Some are good entertainment; others not worth your time.

For me, the Van Gogh immersian mania is cheap entertainment compared to going through various gallery exhibits. (If you’re not able to travel, or have a local museum that has a traveling exhibit, you can find Van Gogh video exhibits on line.) For my tastes, a more genuine and satisfying art experience was the tent show – Cirque du Soleil  – which began much earlier (1984), and which my family and I loved. By 2017 it had performed in  300 cities on 6 continents. Sadly, being a live show it was shut down completely by the Pandemic, declared bankruptcy, and has just been bought out by MGM.

Germania Place is now on the National Register of Historic Places. First constructed in 1889, it has stayed unchanged to the present. The structure was built by the Germania Männerchore  (German Men’s Choir), which formed specifically to sing at Lincoln’s funeral ceremonies that came through Chicago in 1865. During the Great Wars, German Americans experienced prejudice. For these reasons, the Club (as it was later called, to encourage women participation) was sold to several owners. Even after WWII, anti-German sentiment remained. So the German Republic, which joined NATO in 1954, donated the Nazi submarine U-505 to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. It’s the only German sub in America.

Germania Place was bought in 2019 by the developer R2 as an ‘event space’ for $10M and sold in 2021 for $15M ! (Yes, real estate in America – always raising the fortunes of a few at the expense of many.) That profit was helped by the phenomenal success of the Van Gogh “Immersive Experience”. The show’s been advertised all over the city. When I tell strangers I live in Old Town, they say, ‘Oh, the Van Gogh show!’.  It’s been been sold out since it opened in March ’21, and extended several times – currently through December. Thus far, the new owner is unnamed, but I’m sure she/he/they will take advantage of the next ‘immersive experience’ that’s already scheduled.

Immersive experience also brings to mind the religious controversy of ‘total immersion’ v. the ‘sprinkling with water’, or ‘laying on of hands’. These separate various Catholic and Baptist denominations, in the Northern and Southern states, whose views of John the Baptist also differ. Immigrants from north and south Germany also present different views about baptism and immersion. Many Northeners were Anabaptists who thought only adults could properly confirm their faith. Southerners (being closer to Rome) were influenced by Catholic views.

It’s hard to define experience, let alone immersive experience. The word has such a range of uses,  describing events from life altering to trivial, which gives advertisers another tool for controlling people’s desires and choices. A divorce, loss of child, or a bout with breast cancer are life changing. Getting a ‘whole new experience’ of body lotion, or a B&B weekend are not.

Experience can be a verb – ‘experience the moon’s eclipse’;  a noun – ‘experience is needed for this license’;  or an adjective – only experienced  bar-tenders should apply. I find the etymology of the word as interesting as it is complex. The entries given are admittedly questionable, according to many dictionary entries. The PIE (Proto Indo-European) root is per-. Obviously that connects empirical , but also to experiment (which implies doubt). It also relates to try, risk, and peril. It further connects to German gefahr (danger), Gothic ferja (watcher), and Old English faer (sudden attack). My thought here is  it’s not obvious that we can experience reality when so much is a matter of emotion and how one views the world. The common (scientific) viewpoint is limited to the observable world. Perhaps that view ignores the unobservable inner world of our minds, what we desire and believe,  of which we may not even be aware.