The Internet and the 'Art of Immersion'

At SXSW, author Frank Rose talks to CNET about his book that looks at the way the Internet is empowering new kinds of two-way storytelling.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--At the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW) over the last few days, the bulk of the conversation, in hallways, at parties, and in panels, has been about social media. But what about the fascinating ways that people are using technology to take storytelling to the next level?

The team behind the new Jake Gyllenhaal film "Source Code" was in town and talked a bit about the interactive game associated with that film, and a few panels here also touched on the subject. One of those was about the film "Tron: Legacy," and was moderated by "Wired" contributing editor and author Frank Rose.

Joseph Moran

In addition to covering a lot of ground at "Wired," Rose recently published a new book, "The Art of Immersion." On the book's Web site, it is described as Rose's exploration of the people who are reshaping media for a two-way world...whose ideas are changing how we play, how we communicate, how we think."

CNET got a chance to sit down with Rose to talk about his book, about the state of immersion, and about easter eggs hidden on the cover.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Can you start by explaining what the book is about?
Frank Rose: The book is essentially about how the Internet is changing storytelling. I did research on 3D that involved interviewing James Cameron when he was still developing "Avatar" and was about three years away from releasing it. He talked about the idea that the best form of science fiction was really something that could be immersive, that you could jump in almost in powers of ten, like a fractal experience and the pattern would still hold up. And I thought that was a really interesting remark, and filed it away for a long time. Then I did some research about alternate reality games (ARGs), focused on the "Year Zero" game, which Trent Reznor and 42 Entertainment did. And that was clearly a whole new way of telling stories that was very immersive and really engaged the audience in telling the story to themselves, in deciphering the story and figuring it out. I began to see that there was a pattern here, so I wanted to figure out what it was.

Was that exciting?
Rose: It was very exciting. It was completely fascinating. One of the key things I came to realize is that it takes people 20 to 30 years to figure out what to do with any new communications technology. The motion picture camera was invented around 1890, and it was 1910 before they even came up with the idea of movie stars, and another 17 years after that before they had sound. And television was invented around 1925, but it was essentially radio shows with pictures until around 1951 when the sitcom as we know it today was invented, with "I Love Lucy" and a couple of other shows. I feel like the same thing is happening with the Internet. We're now about 20 years into the Web, and it's just in the past few years that people have really begun to explore the full storytelling potential of it, but there's still a whole grammar of storytelling that has yet to be invented.

The book covers a broad range of history. How much focuses on past innovation and how much focuses on where we are right now?
Rose: On the whole, the book focuses on where we are now, and where we're going, where we've been for the last couple of years, and how we've gotten to where we are now. But I thought it was important to tie it to earlier periods of innovation. Everybody quite naturally has the idea that what's happening now is quite new and that it's never happened before. And of course, it never has happened before, but similar things have happened, and we tend to fall into the same patterns.

What will most surprise readers of the book?
Rose: I think the most surprising thing is this background, just the fact that what we're going through now is something that's happened again and again, whenever there's been a new technology. I spent a lot of time with the people who did "Lost," some of whom went on to write the screenplay for "Tron." And I was fascinated by the fact that, number one, "Lost" was the first TV show that was designed for the Internet, in the sense that it was so complicated, and there was so much information, and so little of it was explained, that you almost had to get together online to figure out what was going on. And in fact, that's how Lostpedia came to be, and in an odd sort of way, the guy who started it echoed what Damon Lidelof said about the idea that "Lost" encourages a kind of connection that makes it almost interactive. But at the same time, when they tried to do an ARG based on "Lost," it got completely screwed up. It became this marketing vehicle that was not very well designed, from either a storytelling or a marketing point of view. They created all these purpose-built Web sites for the advertisers, and once they were into doing the ARG, they were told that one of their goals was to drive traffic to the Web sites, and that wasn't really the point.

These hypes come along, ARGs, and we've moved on to transmedia. Have you seen many that were good, that weren't just the latest thing that marketing folks said, "We have to do?"
Rose: I think the ones that have been good are the ones that are primarily about the story, and not necessarily about trying to sell something. I think properly done, you can do both, and that's one of the main themes of the book, the blurring of all these categories. The Internet really blurs everything. Lots of formerly strictly delineated categories get blurred together, and one of them is narrative and marketing, story and advertising.

Who are the heroes of today's immersion?
Rose: I think there's not that many who are really pushing the boundaries. I think Guillermo Del Toro is right up there. He just launched this operation called Mirada Studio, which is premised on the entire idea that you can combine video games and movies. He's obviously a genius director, but he's also an avid gamer, and I think he's someone who is really uniquely equipped to push the boundaries and get us where we need to go. I think people like Will Wright, people like [Lionhead Studios head and "Fable" creator] Peter Molyneux, both of whom are in the book, as well as the "Lost" show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and J.J. Abrams, who co-created "Lost."

I notice you didn't mention folks like Jane McGonigal or the folks at 42 Entertainment as heroes. Do you feel like the people who are building the ARGs fit into that category of heroes as well?
Rose: Definitely. I think in particular, Jordan Weisman, who was a founder of 42. He's absolutely a pioneer of this. Susan Bonds and Alex Lieu are the people who are running 42 now, and they've done extraordinary work with everything from "Year Zero," to "Flynn Lives," the ARG for "Tron." Another really interesting person who's most committed to moving this forward is Sean Bailey, who was a producer of "Tron," and is now the president of production at Disney. He worked on this thing called "The Runner" in 2001 that was going to be a combination of a manhunt, ARG, and TV show. It just happened that some guys crashed some planes into the World Trade Center that fall, and suddenly the idea of a manhunt, and people sneaking through airports and trying not to be caught, was not going to work anymore. But he's very, very committed to it.

You talked about "Avatar," and I'm curious, Josh Quittnet at Time wrote that you couldn't really tell the difference between what's real and what's not in the film. Do you think we've overcome the uncanny valley?
Rose: I think Cameron has. I think that's one of the major things that Cameron did with "Avatar." I saw some early footage, about eight or nine months before the movie was released, and was kind of marveling at the eyes. This was the viper wolf scene, where Jake in avatar form finds himself lost in the jungle and chased at night by viper wolves, and it was all about eyes. Seeing that footage then, and having recently talked to the people responsible for creating that effect, I really marveled at the fact that you could actually follow the characters' eyes. Then when I saw the movie nine months later, I didn't even notice. That's how good the effect was. But they went through extraordinary lengths to get that effect. He took what Peter Jackson and his crew had done with Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings," and scaled it up dramatically. That was one character, with sort of like hand animation. And Cameron scaled it up in dramatic fashion to do dozens of characters that way, and, by the way, used the same people to do it.

What is the secret--how did they do it, briefly?
Rose: The big problem is that motion capture depends on dots. You paint yourself with dots, or have them on your suit, but you can't exactly put dots on somebody's eyes. And yet eyeballs are the things that we are most evolutionarily disposed to follow. That's what we need to look at. And so that's something we really notice about people and animals. What he did, he had all of his actors wear these very elaborate head rigs, which were hand-fitted to each individual actor. It had a cone projecting from their forehead with a tiny little camera aimed back at their eyes. And just the fact that you could have a camera that tiny is something that couldn't have been done a few years ago. And so he captured the data that way of where people's eyes were moving, and they were able to transfer that to the screen.

There are easter eggs hidden in the cover of the new Frank Rose book, The Art of Immersion The Art of Immersion

I really liked the cover of your book. Can you explain what it means?
Rose: It's fascinating. The cover was designed by Jason Booher, just a brilliant designer, and we had labored to get a cover that everybody thought was good enough to capture the idea of the book, for months. Finally, we sent it to him, and this is the first thing he came up with, and he knocked it out of the park, so to speak. The great thing about the design is that you can't really explain it. It conveys in some sense, the idea of immersiveness, and the shimmering nature of reality and hyper-reality that we're moving into. And that's certainly what I love about it. There's also some interesting things about the cover that haven't quite been discovered yet.

Easter eggs on the cover?
Rose: Yes.

Any clues you can give us?
Rose: It's interesting that there are 26 rings.

Lastly, what do you love about what you do for a living?
Rose: It's great, isn't it? Just to be able to go to people like Cameron, or Damon, or Will Wright, and sit down and talk to them about these ideas is so much fun. I see the book as a work of synthesis, like putting things together, at least that's what I was trying to do with it. A lot of seemingly disparate things that I think are all part of the same pattern, and to have the opportunity to do that is really a gift.