The term “immersive experience” tends to be defined differently across various markets. Some might argue that technology needn’t be present at all to create an immersive space and captivate an audience. Others, however, argue that the greatest immersive experiences necessarily involve some form of technology—whether it’s speakers and displays, digital signage or boundary-pushing innovations like Extended Reality (XR). No matter which side of the debate one falls on, almost everyone agrees that an immersive experience, by its nature, must be interactive. That’s why touchscreens haven’t disappeared throughout the pandemic. Everywhere from museums to libraries, we saw touch interaction stay alive because it has become second nature to us as consumers.
We expect interactivity as part of our daily lives, and, relatedly, we want sensory engagement within immersive environments. That’s especially true with art installations. The way we relate to art is no longer static; instead, viewing art has become a full-blown experience that tells a story, taking us on a unique and interactive journey. That journey entails us becoming part of the piece…part of the story. A perfect example of this is the creative explosion that is Meow Wolf, which began as an art collective in Santa Fe NM and now has become an award-winning arts-and-entertainment group. Meow Wolf creates immersive and interactive experiences that transport the audience into fantastic new realms of storytelling and exploration.
Immersive, Interactive Art
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, in Santa Fe, is an art experience with more than 70 rooms of immersive, interactive art to explore. Everything Meow Wolf does sets it apart from almost every other immersive-art experience we’ve seen in the past. To learn more about Meow Wolf’s magic, I spoke to Senior Creative Director Genell Hoechstetter. “What’s really different about our approach is, number one, our layout,” she explained. “Our exhibitions are set up so that, once you land in one room, there’s at least three to four options or directions you could go in after….” She continued, “So, you’re constantly being rewarded for acting on your curiosity.”
‘Whenever we’re going into something, we always ask, “Is it going to inspire them? Are we using art, creativity and play to activate someone’s imagination?”’
—Genell Hoechstetter, Senior Creative Director
Having various ways of navigating the artwork is a major part of the interactive storyline of the house. Hoechstetter elaborated further, saying, “With a lot of other exhibitions, there may be one direction as you filter through the experience. Or there may be two choices—kind of a ‘split’ throughout the journey. But, at Meow Wolf, with our exhibitions, each time you follow your curiosity, you’re rewarded with even more choices and more adventure.”
When visitors explore House of Eternal Return, they’ll find its design completely immerses them in both the art and the story via constant interactivity. “Our interactives play into the space and are a differentiator, as well,” Hoechstetter mentioned. “We use some capacitive touch and other interactive tech here in Santa Fe to activate the space.” Importantly, she emphasized that the spaces are always triggered by a human. “It’s triggered by your presence,” she underscored. “We want it to be known that your presence is very important in the space.”
Navigating The Narrative
As guests navigate the narrative of the interdimensional experience that is House of Eternal Return, they’re invited to act on their curiosity and unlock their imaginations. Indeed, according to Hoechstetter, visitors having an actively engaged imagination is critical. She explained, “It’s really important to our team to make sure it’s not a walk-and-gawk experience.” Hoechstetter added, “Whenever we’re going into something, we always ask, ‘Is it going to inspire them? Are we using art, creativity and play to activate someone’s imagination?’ And if it’s a walk-and-gawk experience, then that’s not happening.”
To inspire that kind of imagination activation, Hoechstetter and her team tend to the smallest storytelling details. And integrated technology is indispensable in bringing that story to life. Meow Wolf uses a blend of interactive technologies—capacitive touch, sensors, lighting and more—that make clear that guests’ actions trigger changes in each room and, perhaps, reveal part of the narrative. For Meow Wolf, this brings the immersive-art experience to life.
Hoechstetter’s title is Senior Creative Director, but she also falls within an increasingly buzzy term in the world of experiential-exhibit creation: “creative technologist.” Creative technology varies across venues and projects; numerous people who hold creative-technologist roles work completely outside the boundaries of traditional integrated AV. The overlap lies in fostering interactivity and immersion. “[The members of] our in-house team of technologists are very much passionate about interactive design and gaming,” Hoechstetter said. “They’re in charge of helping us tie the narrative to some sort of interactive platform.”
In immersive-experience design, creative technologists integrate technology to help tell a story—for example, the story that Meow Wolf uses these tremendous art pieces to tell. Almost by its nature, this process involves transcending boundaries. “Technologists should explore all technology—not just put themselves in a box,” Hoechstetter advised. “They’re learning about Unity. They’re out there learning about [Microsoft] HoloLens, augmented reality [AR] and Instagram filters. They’re learning how to work with Spark. And they’re combining all the tech in the toolbox [to deliver] the best experience for guests.”
Value In Art & Tech
Many layers of art and technology are intertwined in Meow Wolf’s storytelling, so it’s paramount to understand the team’s creative perspective on—its vision for—how they complement one another. “We’re not afraid to be inspired by the tech,” Hoechstetter stated, “but we don’t lead with the tech.” She continued, “We might get excited about what a HoloLens or an AR filter can do, but we make sure that we step away from that tech and ask ourselves [some questions.] ‘Is there a narrative that we can tie this to? Is there an experience that we can attach it to? Will it provide more value for the guests?’” Ultimately, the art and the technology must come together seamlessly.
“Everything has to tie into our values of providing agency for the guests,” Hoechstetter elaborated further. “We want people to leave Meow Wolf thinking, ‘I can’t wait to look at my own life through a different lens.’ That’s what we’re really trying to encourage people to do. Now that you’ve had this experience, how are you going to look at your own life and imagine your own life?”
Inspiration & Innovation
Meow Wolf is building on its success, expanding to three locations. In addition to Santa Fe, there’s one in Las Vegas NV and, later this year, one will open in Denver CO. What its team has done with art, interactivity and culture is genuinely inspiring, and Meow Wolf’s vision has led to innovation not only in the art sector specifically but also in the immersive-experience category broadly. Speaking with evident passion, Hoechstetter declared, “I feel like there is a 100-percent overlap of tech, art and culture. Being immersed in art allows me to have a different perspective about tech. Tech allows me to have a different perspective about art. Being immersed in both allows me to have a different perspective on how we can influence the community and bring something new, innovative and life changing to people.”
I believe that a group of us—those in AV, art and design—occupy a bridge of shared creativity. Together, we can work to create thrilling experiences that are truly unforgettable.
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