Making it immersive – in or out of a headset

After arriving at Make Real a year ago last week (happy anniversary to me), I’ve come to realise that one of the aspects of our company offering that excites me the most – the use of immersive technology – is also one of the most challenging to deliver.

The opportunities that VR and AR present are open-ended and exhilarating to a creative mind. In terms of the “what’s if…?” potential, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. The opportunity to explore and develop what comes next in the medium is truly an extraordinary space to work within.

Yet the challenges around dissemination – the need for passwords, logins, headsets, and guidance for end-users – can create as many obstacles as the technology is supposed to reduce. As learning designers, our goal is to lessen the cognitive load for learners and to create inclusive and accessible experiences that work for the even most technology-averse among our target audiences. While a great immersive experience delivers key learning with a ‘wow’ factor, if there’s any question mark about it creating a stumble for the groups it’s designed to serve, a simpler, less tech-reliant approach might end up delivering better results.

When it comes to thinking about the right use of technology for a project, Oxford University researcher and learning designer Sarah Stein Lubrano offers a brilliant piece of advice. Ask yourself the question: “Is it a bicycle?”

By that, she refers to an idea posited by Austrian philosopher and sometime anarchist Ivan Illich. Illich was very critical of the way society often pushes emerging technologies to the point that they are inescapable, even when they don’t necessarily enhance our lives – or even when they work to our detriment. Using cars as an example, Illich points out that as much as they solve a problem, they’ve created a whole host of other problems:  they are polluters; they cause hazards; and, they move at distances and speeds which have fundamentally upended our flow of life. Bicycles, by contrast, “let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy or time … [People] can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without making undue claims on [the] schedules, energy or space of others.”    In other words, bicycles are a neater technological solution overall because they meet our needs much more cleanly and with less negative disruption to our lives than cars.

And so it goes when choosing what technology best suits your audience. By ensuring that the proposed technology makes the lowest demands of the end user – “is it a bicycle?” – you can ensure that the tech you use doesn’t overwhelm your learner.

But just because an end product is delivered via desktop rather than an Oculus, it doesn’t mean that we can’t apply the same elements that go into the best immersive experiences. Regardless of the final delivery, great learning design should always strive to do the following things:

  • Put the learner at the heart of the experience. If you’ve invited someone into a world you’ve created, regardless of where or how you’ve created it, you should always try to be a good host. In any interactive learning experience, users will be expected to engage and participate, whether that means making decisions that affect outcomes or taking part in an end-of-topic quiz. Thinking about the learner experience – their perspective at any given moment, what they need to know, what they’ll need to view, and what they’re expected to do – should be central to the design approach.
  • Use great storytelling. You can deliver a brilliantly immersive experience using nothing more than a pen and paper. Writers have been doing this for centuries. Storytelling forms natural patterns – a beginning, a middle, and an end – that make the content easier to engage with and more likely to be remembered long after the experience has ended. Additionally, researchers have recently found that narrative experiences can make us identify with fictional characters even more than with people we know and love in real life. Essentially, the more engaging a piece of narrative is, the greater our sense of ‘becoming’ a character we identify with.
  • Evoke emotion. While we don’t yet fully understand the complex relationship between memory and emotion, we do know that emotions play a significant role in helping us commit information to our long-term memory banks. But more than that, how we feel about the subject not only helps to inform us, but can make us more inclined to take action to make a difference. (See for the findings of our recent academic research project).
  • Stoke imagination. Immersive technology takes us to places that might be off-limits in the physical world, stimulating the learner’s imagination. Similarly, to make an experience feel immersive outside of a VR headset, we need stimulate the learner’s imagination, tapping into their “right brain” system that governs intuition, emotional alertness, problem-solving, and personal well-being. Stoking imagination also means asking thought-provoking questions and giving the learner space to use their critical thinking to reach conclusions with minimal intervention.

So whatever bicycles I get to pedal in the year ahead,  as long as I stay mindful of these principles, even the most simple single-gear, sit-up and beg bike can be wheely very effective.

[Editor’s note – look, we know, *that* image… but it’s about learning, bicycles and immersive technology. This is the *right* time to use this image! 😅]



Get in touch

We’re always happy to talk to you about how immersive technologies can engage your employees and customers. If you have a learning objective in mind, or simply want to know more about emerging technologies like VR, AR, or AI, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.