Stage for Hunan TV
Stage for Hunan TV's New Year's Eve 2019 stadium concert. Courtesy of Vita Motus.

feature / on-02
April 22, 2024
By Mike R. Winder


Immersive experiences are everywhere, whether they’re happening in large venues or just millimeters from your retinas. But where is it all heading? And is there room for contemplation?

You’ve no doubt heard the term “immersive” applied to myriad experiences. Last October, megaband U2 christened Sphere in Las Vegas — the largest spherical structure in the world and a 366-foot-tall concert venue, whose interior features a wraparound, 160,000-square-foot 16K LED screen. And this past February, Apple released the Apple Vision Pro, a $3,500 headset the Cupertino company is touting as ushering in the “era of spatial computing.” Setting aside hype, immersive experiences are not recent phenomena. Cathedrals, synagogues, shrines and temples across the globe immerse their visitors in the wonders of the spiritual. National parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites overwhelm the senses with nature’s beauty.

While the concept of the immersive experience may not be new, the technology being used to deliver them today is new, and it’s creating opportunities for artists and designers to create works on scales once considered impossible. Whether these experiences take place in large spaces, on a screen just a few millimeters from our retinas, or somewhere in between is a question being explored by artists and designers around the globe, including many in the ArtCenter community.

“The audience is pure adrenaline,” said singer Shakira in a 2019 concert film that covered the creation of her previous year’s El Dorado World Tour. That tour included two evenings at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, a venue that accommodates 50,000 fans. “On this tour there has been a bestial connection, an almost metaphysical connection,” she said. When she went looking for a collaborator to help create an experience for a tour that would include more than 50 performances around the globe, Shakira turned to Vita Motus CEO Heather Shaw (BS 04).

“It’s really exciting when the concert experience is built, and people are inside the space and having a great time,” says the alumna from her company’s concept design studio in Eagle Rock. Look inside the nondescript, red brick–covered building and you’ll find several large-scale paintings, workspaces for her full-time team of five (the group expands substantially when a project launches), and a translucent sculpture of a human head made from abstractions of circuitry.

A multidisciplinary production design firm, Vita Motus creates high-tech productions and installations for major artists, festivals and brands. In addition to Shakira, Vita Motus has produced concert experiences for artists and brands such as Halsey, Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, Cirque du Soleil, American Idol, Red Bull and Adidas. These events employ everything from arena mainstays like pyrotechnics and confetti cannons to 50-feet-high LED screens and towering sculptural elements. “Being able to get the audience within the design fast is something I love,” says Shaw. “Going from design to building something with my own hands, to having hundreds of thousands of people use it—all within six months? That’s very fulfilling.”

It’s also very different from her previous professional experience as an automotive designer at Audi. After graduating from the College, where she studied transportation design, Shaw worked at the German automaker’s Los Angeles studio for five years. “At Audi, I always wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to push the limits,” says Shaw. “But at Audi, like most long-standing automotive manufacturers, just moving the line on a grill would be a decision that would have to trickle through lots of marketing conversations.”

Stage for Hunan TV
Stage for Hunan TV's New Year's Eve 2021 stadium concert. Courtesy of Vita Motus.

When the economy took a nosedive, Shaw’s contract was not renewed. A friend she’d been working with on the side threw her a “getting laid off” party. “They told me this change was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Shaw laughs. “They said it was going to transform my life. And it really did. It was rough for about eight months, but then things really picked up.”

Except for the period during the pandemic, things never slowed down for her. And these days, a new revenue stream has picked up for Vita Motus in the form of large-scale televised concerts for the Chinese market. Shaw’s company designed an ambitious broadcast stage for Hunan TV’s 2019 New Year’s Eve stadium concert—a design that drew from wuxing (“five phases”) philosophy, with spaces embodying the elements of air, fire, water, metal and wood. Flanking the stage, and representing a vision of the future, were two gigantic, silver leaf–covered busts of women, each 50 feet tall and adorned with augmented reality eyewear.

Two years later, for Hunan TV’s 2021 New Year’s Eve broadcast, Vita Motus designed a stage built around the concept of “The Circuitry of Life.” The design featured a large tree sculpture made of 520 undulating screens moving in wavelike patterns, showing live video of remote viewers singing along with the performers onstage.

It’s this latter example that Shaw thinks points to the future of concerts and immersive experiences. At 2023’s South by Southwest Conference, she presented as part of a panel titled “Augmented Realities: XR Innovation in Live Events,” where she talked about several concepts that Vita Motus is actively exploring: how to bring concerts to people watching remotely via their phones or laptops; how to bring friends who are watching remotely from different parts of the globe together; and how to incorporate remote viewers into the live experience at venues themselves. “Imagine a venue with an extended reality stage and media walls that allow you to bring people watching remotely into the space,” says Shaw. “And then add an augmented reality layer on top of that. It can bend your mind a little.”

A large tree sculpture made of 520 undulating screens were part of the stage of Hunan TV
A large tree sculpture made of 520 undulating screens were part of the stage of Hunan TV's New Year's Eve 2021 stadium concert. Courtesy of Vita Motus.

One person trying to make sense of it all is Ivan Cruz (BFA 11), the instructor for Mediatecture, an upper-level, multidisciplinary course in ArtCenter’s undergraduate Graphic Design program that explores the boundaries of new media. “Once we have a headset we can comfortably wear all the time, I could see AI-driven augmented reality take off,” says Cruz, sitting in Superba café across the street from the College’s South Campus. “From a work perspective, it’s going to open up so many possibilities. Our computer desks can be anywhere, with endless virtual screens. And in public, people will be waving their hands in the air, interacting with these augmented environments.”

A creative technologist, motion designer and installation artist based in L.A., Cruz has worked on a variety of spatial projects for companies like Google, E-Ink and IBM. Remember BMW’s iX Flow vehicle, shown off at CES in 2023, that could change its exterior color thanks to E-Ink? Cruz worked with BMW’s in-house agency and Nikolaus Hafermaas, former department chair of Graphic Design, to help bring that concept to life. He’s currently working again with Hafermaas on Deep Time: Sea Dragons of Nevada, an art and paleontology exhibition that will be at the Nevada Museum of Art. Deep Time will explore the rise and fall of Ichthyosaurus, a marine reptile that lived 250 million years ago and whose length may have rivaled that of the blue whale. For that exhibition, Cruz is working on bringing the extinct reptile to life using real-time, point-cloud animation moving across an 80-foot-long curved surface.

Cruz outlines other possibilities for AR headsets: “In the future, you could just point your gaze at that pin,” he says, pointing at an enamel pin of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. “You’d say, ‘Oh, I like that pin. Where can I buy that?’ and then you’ll be able to order it right then and there.” He adds, “You’ll be shopping throughout your normal day. The combination of AR and AI is going to create new ways of interfacing with the digital and physical worlds.”

On the other hand, it could be that the more ubiquitous these types of headsets become, the more people may want to disconnect. Cruz recalls an experience he had as the Study Away instructor in Berlin, when a nightclub forced people to place stickers over their phones’ cameras before entering. “The idea is that people want to be themselves, which they can’t if they’re being recorded and shared on social media,” he adds. “So it’s good to examine who we really are, both the physical version of us and the the digital version of us.”

<i>Deep Time: Sea Dragons of Nevada</i> at the Nevada Museum of Art features a real-time, point-cloud animation of an Icthyosaurus moving across an 80-foot-long curved surface. Courtesy of Ivan Cruz.
Deep Time: Sea Dragons of Nevada at the Nevada Museum of Art features a real-time, point-cloud animation of an Icthyosaurus moving across an 80-foot-long curved surface. Courtesy of Ivan Cruz.

Cruz points to Fluid Dimensions, a thesis project by recent graduate Jocelyn Zhao (BFA 23), as a good example of a work that explores the relationship between people’s real and digital personas. In the project, Zhao uses a variety of media types, including print, physical models, generative art and VR, to offer a perspective on this relationship in both physical and virtual spaces. “I love to collect books,” says Zhao. “A book for me is not just text on paper. There’s a lot to observe when you touch or open a book. It has an architecture, a structure. It has texture. You can feel the different materials, the smell, the colors—it all activates my senses.”

In Fluid Dimensions, Zhao not only turns words themselves into something with a physical texture, via a cover that applies a 3D-printed typography to the opening paragraph of the book (“We are already cyborgs,” it begins), but she also gives our invisible digital connections a dimensionality. Using a data visualization tool as well as Processing software, Zhao takes a person’s social network and transforms it into an explorable, three-dimensional map that resembles a complex skeletal molecular structure. Her next step will be to turn this map into a VR experience that will allow users to explore the map in an immersive manner.

“This fits what I really want to do, which is translating stories through different media types,” explains Zhao, who studied graphic design in China before studying at ArtCenter, and eventually found her passion in her Type 5: Transmedia and Mediatecture course pairing. “And I’ve always loved using technology, so transmedia allows me to use the most advanced technology and combine it with more traditional formats, like books, to create new things.”

Jocelyn Zhao
Jocelyn Zhao's transmedia student project Fluid Dimensions included a publication with 3D-printed typography on its cover. Courtesy of Zhao.

Creating new things is par for the course in Entertainment Design instructor Justin Andarza’s Game Design for Themed Entertainment. “The pandemic really catalyzed a lot of our investment into virtual experiences,” says Andarza via Zoom, a method of communication he finds more helpful than ever, as he recently celebrated the birth of his first child. “But now, in the ‘postpandemic,’ we are seeing a swing back to the desire to connect on a physical level with one another and with the physical world to which we are naturally akin.”

Andarza has oodles of experience in this realm already, having served as director of innovation for four years at Two Bit Circus, the micro-amusement park in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District that blends arcade games, VR and carnival games. His time there included working on events for the foundation arm of Two Bit Circus, including a STEAM Carnival and the Anti-Gala fundraiser, the latter of which had him testing the functionality of a fire proximity suit in Dunk Tank Flambé. “It turns out there’s room for all of it—physical, virtual or a combination of both—based on necessity or circumstances,” he adds. “It’s an exciting time.”

For the past two years, teams of Entertainment Design students in Andarza’s course have pooled their talents to create immersive games that have won industry accolades. In Kitchen Kauldron, which won the alt.ctrl.GDC Audience Award in 2023, players join Wendy the Witch’s kitchen crew to save her failing food truck. And in Chú Mó: The Exorcist Exams, which won 2023’s IndieCade Live Action Award, players become students in an exorcist school where they must battle demons who inhabit their surroundings.

Both games require players to enter a special room—in the case of Chú Mó, a haunted room filled with a variety of physical objects that the spirits possess, where fans blow wind and bells make strange sounds to spook the players. In both games, interacting with the environment itself is central to the gameplay. “They don’t look like game controllers at all,” says game designer and student Tianrui “Teri” Zhang in a behind-the-scenes video, speaking of the three stations players interact with to confront the East Asian demons that cause chaos in Chú Mó. “That’s the most important thing about the game. We’re trying to create an experience where you feel like you’re [actually] there instead of looking at a screen or wearing a headset. We’re trying to create something more in person and realistic.”

Experiential designer Sarah T. Kang (BS 09), an associate creative director at George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, teaches Ambient Media and Interactivity in the graduate Spatial Experience Design program on weekends. For Kang, much of what immersive experiences boil down to is facilitating human connection or rekindling childlike wonder. “We live in a society that feels pretty rigid, especially for professionals, and we’ve forgotten that playful side of us,” says Kang, whose past clients and collaborators have included Google, Intel, Samsung, Disney and Sonos. “Immersive installations allow you to go back and revisit your childhood self.”

Kang gets a kick out of seeing corporate CEOS, dressed in business attire, having fun with the installations she’s worked on. “Some of these installations almost feel like Chuck E. Cheese’s, but for adults,” she says with a laugh. “They become a place for people to connect on a different level. Something special happens when you see someone just being playful and interacting. There’s an icebreaking quality to it.”

Kang says that in terms of immersive experiences, science and natural history museums have been experimenting in this realm for decades. Carl Akely, the father of modern taxidermy and the designer of the American Museum of Natural History’s beloved African elephant diorama, created the first habitat diorama in 1889. In so doing, he began what the museum refers to as “the beginning of a long career of transporting viewers to animal habitats around the world via stunningly detailed dioramas—the original virtual reality.”

For last year’s Cisco Live conference in Las Vegas, Kang oversaw the creation of Kaleidoscope Experience, an immersive multimedia installation inspired by the kaleidoscope’s ability to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary. Part of the Cisco Live Social Media Hub, Kaleidoscope Experience merged the physical with the digital (“That’s become my area of specialty,” says Kang) through the use of a modular beMatrix LED wall and a step-in pyramid created from mirrors and strips of LED lights. When users step in, they find themselves in the middle of colorful and trippy imagery, perfect for sharing on social media. “All these structures at trade shows, they’re all temporary, so there’s often a lot of waste,” says Kang. “The nice thing about the Kaleidoscope Experience is that we made it using all rental pieces, so all the components could be completely disassembled and reused.”

The <i>Kaleidoscope Experience</i> at Cisco Live 2023 in Las Vegas was entirely built from rental pieces that could be completely disassembled and reused. Courtesy of Sarah T. Kang.
The Kaleidoscope Experience at Cisco Live 2023 in Las Vegas was entirely built from rental pieces that could be completely disassembled and reused. Courtesy of Sarah T. Kang.

Indeed, the often wasteful nature of immersive experiences was a big reason that HUSH creative partner David Schwarz (MFA 04) decided to move his experience-based design firm—whose clients have included Nike, Uber, Meta and The Met—in a different direction in recent years. In a December 2023 FutureSpaces webinar entitled “Screen Fatigue: The Catalyst for Sustainable Creativity,” Schwarz recalled having a “four-, five- or six-year-long epiphany” about the contradiction between what companies stated as their sustainability goals versus how his firm was being asked to represent those companies through experiential projects. “It became pretty hard to stomach when one of these brands out in the world would commit [to its environmental, social and governance goals], but then turn around and ask us to do something that is so clearly unsustainable for a million reasons.”

“Big digital, I don’t care how you skin it,” continued Schwarz. “I don’t care if it’s powered by green energy—it’s just not good for the planet.” He went on to explain that he believes a lot of the big digital work being done is beautiful and filled with artistry and revenue possibilities, but that it requires the use of materials that will remain in our environment for centuries and whose operational energy requirements are massive.

The next day, he elaborated via Zoom that other factors that influenced HUSH’s change in direction of late include the fact that “99 out of 100 people” in the spaces outside of museums, culture or ticketed experiences aren’t looking for immersive experiences that will “blow their hair back.” They’re looking for beauty, nuance and balance. Plus, he adds, when every company decides to create mind-blowing immersive experiences, then the idea of immersion itself begins to plateau. “So, why can’t we widen the aperture about how we think about all these things?” Schwarz asks. “That’s what got me into thinking about zigging when everyone’s zagging.”

HUSH's work for Uber's headquarters in San Francisco features abstract data visualization sculptures. Courtesy of HUSH.

HUSH has plenty of recent examples of projects that eschew capital “I” immersion for more subtle effects (see the company’s abstract data visualization sculptures in Uber’s headquarters, or the digital artwork and content in Barclay’s world headquarters in London that gently remind traders to take a break on the hour). Schwarz points to a project the firm created for United Therapeutics’ global headquarters building in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, as a prime example of the company’s “zigging.”

At 210,000 square feet, the elliptically shaped Unisphere building is the largest site-powered, net-zero building in the country. HUSH was tasked with creating an experience that would educate visitors and employees on the importance of sustainability in as many ways as the firm could conceive. To accomplish this, HUSH created the building’s Energy Dial, a sculptural installation inspired by sundials that analyzes real-time data and then shines light inward when the building is using more energy than it’s making, and outward when it’s producing more than it’s using. 

“This could just be me getting older, but when you’re young and come out of ArtCenter, you think you’re a rock star and you gotta try to prove it to everybody,” says Schwarz of HUSH’s recent lean into more contemplative designs. “But later, you realize there are more long-frequency waves you can ride that can carry you further. They may be less sexy than a loud explosion, but they provide more gravitas and impact because they have time and depth to them.”

“Is ‘immersive’ about the senses, or is it about the ideas?” he continues. “And what’s the biggest idea we can get people to consider? Their own humanity? Their own impact? Their own health? Those aren’t topics that just leave your brain in a second. They require some meditative thought. That’s what we’re trying to create.”

The Energy Dial at United Therapeutics headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland educates visitors and employees on the importance of sustainability. Courtesy of HUSH.
The Energy Dial at United Therapeutics headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland educates visitors and employees on the importance of sustainability. Courtesy of HUSH.