What’s an Experience? The Essence of VR & Sports Revealed in Media Psychology and Immersive Design


Content. Content. Content. That was the running theme in the latest Fall edition of the Digital Hollywood conference. Software developers, entertainment producers and educators alike all gathered over the course of four days to listen in on panelists preaching the need for smart content and audience engagement in the age of advanced media. Emerging technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality are gaining momentum. But how do you create content using immersive technology that is sustainable enough to build retention and not rejection? Media Psychology students, faculty, and alumni were there (self included) to deliver thoughts and solutions.

I had the pleasure of presenting (my slides above) and decided to focus on some concepts that people throw around a lot, but even fewer can theoretically catch. Presence…immersion…and what in the hell even is an experience? With terms like these being used a great deal in tech conferences, it’s time we take a step back and understand what they actually mean in the context of advanced technology and emerging media.

An experience is ultimately a sensation. A thumbprint that hinges on our identity. They are made up of our perceptions, feelings, and memories which essentially make us who we are. It’s the state of being emotionally and aesthetically moved by something directly observed or actively engaged in.

Psychology is at the root of media experiences because they work to communicate messages and have them resonate. Therefore when you’re targeting a specific audience,  we need to do the research to get behind who these people are, where they come from, and what experiences they’re going to anticipate and come to expect from you.

Screen Shot 2016-11-05 at 9.20.29 AM.pngIn sports, the experience is greater than the game itself. There are two important perspectives to consider – the emotional context (beliefs, values, goals, purchase patterns) and the digital context (tech behaviors, expectations, devices, multiple screens, etc.). When you trace patterns between media consumption and user behavior, you’ll see a trend in human activity of wanting to be more fully immersed and engaged with the content.

Sport fans want to be as up close and personal to the action as possible. And VR is the gateway to enable new experiences, perspectives, and capabilities.

Technology will continue to adapt and add a new bells or whistles. Hell, we have tech conferences every 3 months and podcasts produced weekly to show for it. What does not change are the fundamental drivers of human behavior; our innate desire to be storytellers; the longing for connection.

If technology is a car, story must be the driver. The car otherwise can’t go anywhere without something behind the wheel driving it. Storytelling – making the tech useful, relevant, and participatory by taking consumers on a journey. 

Experience is a multidimensional construct. Depending on the individual and their needs at a specific time, a consumer can have their experience rooted in a certain field. My research in the sport experience shows that there are at least three fields that comprise what I call an Experiential Media Ecosystem – Community, Self, and Organization.


The Community Field represents the group membership, tribal nature of sport affiliation. This is a major social influencer that is shown in “I want to watch the game” or “I want to tailgate to be with my fellow ___ fans.” The Self field represents what sports does for a person intrinsically; the pure, natural passion that comes from watching a game 7 or live tweeting. It reveals consumption patterns of product utilization where you might not just want to watch the game, but rather, “need to watch the game.” The last field is Organization and represents all the brand extensions and corporate influencers fans engage with simply out of team affiliation. It’s been reported that as high as 70% of sport fans have a willingness to invest in companies on social media who are associated with their favorite team or player. Beyond the partnerships that are a part of the business, the Organization field embodies the obligation fans feel to watch their favorite team play, as in “I should watch the game” or “I have a responsibility to wear my teams colors on game day.”

These sentiments of wantneed, and should/ought reflect the multidimensional experience afforded by sports today. Understanding these emotions can amplify the design process for VR because human centered designs will help create an optimal UX/UI for immersive content.

As part of the best design practices, you must ignite the virtual landscape with activity. Invite opportunities to engage and see the User’s experience and sentiments come to fruition. And once content creators dive into the emotional principles of design strategy, the experience can be about the emotionally-binding content, not just the technology.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Fielding Faculty and Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, presented on a panel titled “The Psychology of Audience Engagement: Balancing Fan Desires and Producer Vision in the Age of Entitlement.” To Dr. Rutledge, understanding the drivers of human behavior will tap into the audience’s needs and help grow the subculture of early adopters. “We have to be aware of the psychological responses that change with each technology and platform, and how that influences meaning, narrative, and experience” said Dr. Rutledge. “For widespread adoption, VR needs to be social rather than isolating.”

VR was not only a theme of Digital Hollywood, but its also the sexiest buzzword happening right now in general. From education and gaming to health and advertising – every vertical is bidding to get into the VR space.  The medium is impressive with a reach that has no bounds, but it can not thrive unless the content (and story) is there to support it.

(For my presentation, go to 19:40)

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