How do you entice a generation of digitally-connected people out of their homes and into real-life experiences? We set out to tackle this question (and a delicious 5-course meal prepared by chef Zac Reynolds at his restaurant Cook Weaver) at a recent Intentional Futures Salon dinner. Interior designers, writers, artists, and owners of performance & game spaces engaged in a conversation that extended far beyond the original query to touch identity, intimacy, and the nature of digital interactions.

When people physically attend experiences, from restaurants to escape rooms, they plot themselves on a spectrum from control to chaos based on their goals, how they are feeling, and who they’re with. No one shows up alone – each person brings their emotional context, social network, and Yelp review accounts, raising the stakes for the experience and its creators. A performance with unexpected twists and audience participation could feel energizing on Friday, and unsafe and annoying on Saturday.

Online you vs. IRL you

New challenges present themselves when audiences move online. When you show up for an event or a conversation on the Internet, are you really there? We collectively wondered how the online world trains us to act in real life and how it offers an opportunity to portray who we want to be vs. who we really are. Some say you can fake it ‘till you make it, but it can be hard to shift your confident online persona into real life. Online communities can be accelerators and scalers of personality traits, but they suffer from a slow or missing feedback loop that shows us our emotional impact on others. A confident online troll will face significantly more blowback in a face-to-face discussion.

“Family – the most safe and unsafe place we have.”

As we debated whether online intimacy, with its asynchronous communication and lack of physical cues, constituted “real” intimacy, we considered one place where you typically can’t hide: with family or close friends. Intimacy involves high cost, vulnerability, immediacy, and authenticity. We could choose to present a carefully-curated version of ourselves over Thanksgiving dinner, but all it takes is a family member reminding you of your terrible haircut when you were 12 years old for that persona to crumble.

Gathering to escape or connect

Humans have always found ways to escape, from staring at a fire (a friend used to quip that “fire was TV for a million years”) to reading a book to donning a VR headset. Each medium was once new technology, and they frame how we interact with the world and how we shut it out. What’s different today is that you can be both physically isolated and digitally connected at the same time.

Blending physical and digital spaces is the new normal (we shudder to see this referred to as “phygital” in recent media). Some are primarily physical, aided by online setup, purchase, or personalization:

Others are digital-first, bringing your body along for the ride:

  • Pokemon Go, the game that gets people outside to hunt digital creatures together
  • Haptic gloves add a sense of touch to your VR experience
  • In-store lockers at retailers like Home Depot and Walmart so you can buy online and pick up in-store without talking to a human

Whether they promote meaningful or simply transactional connections is an open question. The fact that physical retail persists in the face of more convenient options signals that even transactional connections nourish some wanting part of our hearts.

Techniques to foster participation

So let’s say you can draw people to a space to experience something together, whether it’s an escape room, a performance, or a topical conversation. Event designers can set expectations for participants in advance so they know how or whether to show up: “you’ll be on your feet in the Emporium for 3 hours.” But it’s important to do this without taking the magic away: “the Emporium contains the following surprises: a wizard, the Red Queen…”  Give the audience just enough information to tip them over to openness.

Our group suggested a few other ways that experiential designers can move people from interested to invested:

  • Clarify and design for your goals
  • Offer agency to participants (i.e. cede control)
  • Frame, but do not dictate the experience
  • Create immersion through sight, sound, and smell
  • Enable participation
  • Create a portal into a space, setting a tone for a new experience

This particular iF Salon was introspective and self-aware: we acknowledged that we would probably never be in a room together again, and in that way we we were breaking the old model of the salon, where people would meet, debate, and create together over time. For each of us, designing experiences that bring groups together even for a few hours is still worth it. We are hardwired for meaningful connection, and in an age of increasing social isolation, we need more reasons to be together.