Creating immersive experiences with diegetic interfaces

I like to think of Interaction Design in its purest form as being about shaping the perception of an environment of any kind. Yes, today the discipline is so closely tied to visual displays and software that it almost seems to revolve around that medium alone, but that’s only because as of now, that’s pretty much the only part of our environment over which we have complete control.

The one field that has come closest to overcoming this limitation is the video game industry whose 3D games are the most vivid and complete alternate realities technology has been able to achieve. Game designers have control over more aspects of an environment, albeit a virtual one, than anyone else.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that interfaces can be more closely integrated with the environment in which they operate. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned from the universe of video games and how it might be applicable to other kinds of designed experiences.

In Designing for the Digital Age, Kim Goodwin criticizes the term “Experience design” as being too presumptuous because we don’t really have the power to determine exactly what kind of experience each person with their own beliefs and perceptions has. Even when we work across an entire event from start (e.g. booking a flight) to finish (arriving at the door), there are still countless factors outside our control that can significantly impact how a person will experience it.

Video game designers on the other hand can orchestrate a precise scenario since almost every detail in their virtual world is for them to determine. They can arrange exactly what kind of person sits next to you on a flight no matter who you are or how many times you take that flight.

That isn’t to say that videogames don’t have their limitations. Of course, it isn’t completely true that game designers can determine who sits next to you. They can only determine who your avatar sits next to. The most significant weakness of videogames is the inability to truly inhabit a designed environment or narrative. As much control as we may have over a virtual world, as long as we are confined to experiencing it through television screens and speakers, it won’t be anywhere near comparable to our real world.

Fortunately, there’s a growing effort to address this lack of immersion.

A key area of the problem lies in how we’re presented and interact with complex information diegetically, that is, interfaces that actually exist within the game world itself.

The 4 spaces in which information is presented in a virtual environment

Before continuing, it helps to be familiar with some basic concepts and terminology around diegesis in computer graphics, the different spaces of representation between the actual player and their avatar. The diagram above illustrates the four main types of information representation in games.

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Non-diegetic representations remain the most common type of interface in games. In first person shooters, arguably the most immersive type of game since we usually see the scenery through our avatar’s view, the head-up display has remained an expected element since Wolfenstein 3D first created the genre. Read More