"Diversion vs. Immersion"
I’m writing this from seat 40A on the flight from Munich to Washington Dulles, and after looking out the window and thumbing through the in-flight magazine, I mulled whether a nap or movie would make the time go by faster. I noticed Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and pressed the button on the seat-back monitor. I hadn’t seen since it came to my local small-town cinema, back during the Johnson administration, but the memory of its deep eeriness, that mysterious monolith and extra-terrestrials, had remained palpable for over 40 years.
I’d forgotten the noise-canceling headphones I usually travel with so I just watched. The opening, with the primates acting up on the desert came across like something a not very promising first-year film student put together with the neighbor kids dressed up in trick-or-treat costumes. The spaceship ballet that followed struck me like something the community college model shop came up with on short notice. The more I watched, the stronger the sense that, if ever there was a movie that strove to make a statement, only to collapse under the weight of its own hokeyness, this had to be it. I imagine that if you’ve ever turned off the sound and just watched a movie, even a great movie, you’ve had a similar experience.
I rummaged through the seat-back pocket in front of me to fish out United’s plastic, on-ear headphones, set the volume and restarted the movie from the beginning.
I’d have to concede that the overall effect was better in various analytical ways, but there was the same hokeyness, and no sense of being there, no flow, let alone grace.
Seeing a great film under these circumstances struck me like watching hidden camera footage of some elegant celebrity picking their nose, or worse. It made me squirm. There was sound, but no mood, let alone some deep, unforgettable eeriness. My 40A experience bore no relation to any seat in a commercial cinema. If there was a resemblance, it was to the usual TV/family room that passes for a home theater: The picture is big and bright, and things get loud without distorting too much, like in a cinema, but seldom palpable; you know the movie takes place somewhere else – outer space or a concert stage or a pirate ship – but they’re there and you’re here, and the kids have homework and you’re expecting a call from your cousin at any minute, and you wonder if there’s any dessert left. The TV experience is diversion, not immersion. We all know that and set our expectations accordingly. If you spend a lot of money on a loud TV experience, well I guess you have it to burn.
There are many factors driving what might be called the Diversion/Immersion Divide, and one of them is the disruption caused by noise and other disturbances in the playback environment. If you fly a lot you probably know the roughly 20 decibels of attenuation offered by the current crop of noise-cancelling headphones will dramatically improve your ability to get some quiet time on a flight, not to mention render the movie soundtrack a lot clearer when watching the in-flight movie. When you cut noise by roughly 10 decibels, you perceive it to have been cut in half; 20 decibels means it’s subjectively about one-quarter as loud. Whether you’re in an Airbus or a dedicated home theater, there’s still audible background noise, enough for your brain to ground you with the reminder, “Wait a second, we’re not in outer space, we’re just sitting at home here, watching a big TV.”
The natural question is, Why do human brains appear to be wired for “moments of vigilance,” for acquiring information about the real world around us, which has the effect of draining the you-are-there illusion out of movie experiences? Surely one of the more obvious possibilities would have to be that any species that fully buys into a fictional world – that “suspends disbelief” as Coleridge called it 200 years ago – is oblivious of its here-and-now environment. In the old days that environment included lions, bears and human thugs; nowadays it’s cars, buses and human thugs. In the real world, those who readily suspend disbelief are at a disadvantage in living long enough to pass on their genes. That’s why we constantly probe our environment, to know what’s real and what’s not. We’re all wired to assuage what Dennett calls “epistemic hunger”; he and many other neuroscientists believe it’s a basic feature of the mammalian brain.
The surest and most direct path to carry-you-away movie experiences in your home doesn’t begin with searching out the speakers that most convincingly supply your ears with the aural story (“I’m on a creaky old sailing ship somewhere and there’s a breeze and people who talk funny”) nor with a projector and screen combo that best supplies your eyes with the narrative (“Yes, I see, I’m on a pirate ship in the Caribbean with crazy people”.) It begins with ferreting out those cues in our immediate environment – sounds, vibrations, sights, smells – that say “Naw, I’m in an airplane on my way back home” or “I’m in my family room (or high-end theater)” and systematically reducing the number and magnitude of these contradictory sensory reports to the point where they’re below the threshold of detection. To any serious theater designer, that means isolating and quieting the venue to equal a professional recording studio, or quieter still.
Does that seem extreme to you? Before you answer, ponder this: You’re on the edge of your seat during a crazy-suspenseful scene, the part where a compelling story, acted by greatest actors of the time, directed and edited to perfection, get you all tingly on the back of your neck, and then, while you and your family and friends are frozen, eyes wide and holding your breaths, the sound of your kid flushing the upstairs toilet somehow leaks into your home theater. Now ask yourself: How loud does that flush have to be for it to break the spell, to take you out of the movie? Better yet, try measuring that level sometime. (You’ll need a special-purpose, hideously expensive microphone to even register sounds that faint.)
Solving the toilet flush problem, and dozens of other “barely audible” distractions, is critical to the success of any room that could fairly be called a dedicated home theater, private screening room or listening room. Before getting seduced by catchy slogans, celebrity endorsements and yet more energetic arm-waving by the AV salesman, it’s prudent to get clued up about the basic mechanics of immersion
What: It’s not a purchase; it’s a process
How: It’s governed by 3 fundamental things
Data Depth: Test gear can measure the resolution or fidelity of what’s on the disc (4k video, Dolby Atmos 7.1.4 channel audio; 100dB signal to noise ratio, etc.). Up to some limit, significantly deeper data (higher resolution) is generally more lifelike/persuasive than shallower data
Data Breadth: Data supplied across more modalities (e.g. auditory + visual + vibrotactile + olfactory) is generally more persuasive than narrower (e.g. just one or two them);
Multimodal Congruence: Reports (data streams) from eyes, ears, mechanoreceptors in your skin, etc. need to be telling the same story. The brain has structures and processes that automatically flag as fakery an actor whose lips move in one spot on the screen (visual report) while his/her voice originates from somewhere else — behind, above, below or to the side of the visual origin (auditory report). The basic rules concerning multimodal congruence have been researched, settled and understood by neuroscientists for many years.
Note that the congruence imperative applies to more than just the cues filmmakers layer into their movies; it also applies to cues between the film’s fictive world and the real world you’re sitting in. If the filmmaker shows you a field of wildflowers with a few puffy clouds and the soundtrack congruently relays a gentle breeze stirring and a 3D tapestry of bird and insect sounds, everything in its place, but you smell buttered popcorn and feel a little floor rumble from a cement truck driving down your street, the prospects for “immersion” are low. Note that human congruence detection circuits are always on and operate at very basic levels (in the midbrain), meaning you can’t just “ignore” multimodal disconnects, any more than you can just tell your heart to stop beating.)
Value: Immersion is weakly correlated with equipment expenditure, and strongly correlated with how comprehensively the architectural, acoustical, HVAC and audiovisual designs were envisioned, computationally modeled, optimized and calibrated to meet physical and perceptual metrics based on the current states of knowledge in both fields. Only when all that is done are the CAD drawings ready to be plotted and handed to the builder and AV installer.
Yes, I’m talking about unreasonably high standards for most people.
But I call it the Diversion/Immersion Divide because the truth is, you can’t talk yourself into a goose-bumpy movie or music experience. Nor can you just spend your way there. You either forget who and where you are and the pilomotor reflex kicks in and you come away moved or even changed, or you don’t; it’s just a loud TV.
It’s a binary deal. If Immersion is what you hunger for, you have to design and manage your way there.
To be fair, United wasn’t shooting for Immersion in their in-flight entertainment offerings. They were settling for Diversion or maybe something even less ambitious, like Temporary Distraction while they transported people to their destination. But for this passenger, and some of you reading this, movies and music transport us to another feeling, another life, at another time, in a different place.
I’ll revisit Kubrick’s world another time, from a seat in an altogether different kind of “venue.”
Measures the things that take audiences out of the movie