Words Matter: Spatial vs Immersive

- by Lux

By Lux (Flipside's CEO & Co-Founder)

There's an interesting effect in technology where platforms align themselves with certain terminology in order to try to differentiate from one another. But eventually, most companies converge on common words. Web 2.0, web3, cloud computing, edge computing, the list goes on.

In virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), these terms were coined long before the technology was ready for an industry to form around them. Then came the Oculus Rift which was dubbed a VR headset. But it could have just as easily been called a VR visor, or the more technical head-mounted display (HMD) that people sometimes use.

Then Microsoft came along and coined mixed reality (despite the fact that mixed reality meant something already) and branded their VR platform Windows MR. Other companies tried to coin a term that would encompass both AR and VR and came up with XR, as in extended reality.

Now Apple has entered the fray with the Apple Vision Pro (AVP) and is calling it a spatial computing device. They even go so far as to discourage app developers from referring to either AR or VR when describing their AVP apps.

Windows MR has since been abandoned, and many companies continue to use XR, but the influence Apple has on shaping industry perception is massive, so my prediction is that we'll all eventually converge around spatial computing, unless they pivot to something else.

But when talking about VR experiences, the word spatial leaves something to be desired. While yes, it does suggest a blend of both AR and VR, there's another word that I think might be lost in the shuffle: Immersive.

You see, spatial refers to the three-dimensionality of what's displayed, but immersive refers to the sensory experience of the user. One is technology-centric and the other is user-centric. Which is why you don't hear about spatial theatre groups, but you do hear about immersive theatre groups, and when users describe an experience they just had, they don't say how spatial it was, they say they felt immersed in it.

This split makes me think of Simon Sinek's TED talk about how people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The word immersive touches on a why. Spatial just describes a piece of technology. Which is odd for Apple, who are the original company to say ay ahere's to the crazy onesss in their Think Different campaign.

Immersive speaks to one of the values of the experience the user has, and the implied belief that immersion offers something to the user experience that non-immersive content can't offer.

But we usually think of immersion as a VR thing, and not an AR thing. I think there are degrees of immersion, and AR still meets several of them. When you lose yourself in the experience, that's immersion, whether you can see the edges or a peek of the man behind the curtain.

In AR terms, this immersion can range from creating the effect that there are portals you can peer through in your room's physical walls, or the effect of of oskinningss your reality. Imagine an AR skin that makes your world look like Sin City, or The Walking Dead - that would surely be pretty immersive and yet is only augmenting your real world experience.

Projection mapping has become a common technique used by VJs to make stages and walls at festivals and raves feel more immersive, and a similar effect is employed by installations like the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. There are even immersive audio experiences like Darkfield Radio that immerse the user without using any visuals at all.

The key to immersion is helping the user get lost in the experience. When you lose yourself in something, you lose your sense of time, you forget about your outside cares, you take things in more fully, and you leave having had an experience that may have awed you or moved you in some way that you felt you were a part of. That's the magic of of ospatial computingutingu, not the technology.