Beyond Multisensory: Pushing the Boundaries of Immersive Design

Read Time: 5 minutes

Many museums have long described themselves as “multisensory” by including interactives that visitors can touch, see and hear. But immersive exhibitions go further by magnifying, multiplying or sometimes isolating powerful human sensory experiences. In this essay, SEGD contributor Joseph Wisne (Roto) describes how these superstar attractions go beyond multisensory to become “supersensory.”

With the commercial success of immersive attractions like Meow Wolf, Van Gogh Alive, and selfie-style pop-up museums, much is being made of their dramatic, multisensory character. But despite the recent success of the “immersive art” phenomenon, the question for designers and audiences alike in 2022 is not whether they have taken things too far, but whether they have gone far enough.

A supersensory experience expands upon a single human sense or integrates many together. How many? Neurologists would agree on at least nine human senses defined as discrete receptor neurons responding to particular physical experiences and processed within a specific region of the brain. In addition to the familiar Big Five—touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste—we can add four others:

  • thermoception (sense of temperature)
  • nociception (pain)
  • equilibrioception (balance)
  • proprioception (body awareness).

Additional innate human capabilities, such as sensations of pressure, social affinity, and approaching danger, are considered further “post-sensory” abilities. All are valid areas of potential supersensory exhibition and attraction design.

Supersensory experiences are to exhibits what Superman is to humans, or supercomputers are to PCs; they amplify ordinary sensory inputs or find novel ways to incorporate sensory triggers where they normally do not exist. The powerful, guided experience “Dialogue in the Dark” (successfully operating in dozens of cities around the world) encloses visitors in absolute darkness, intensifying their other perceptions in the total absence of sight. The same isolation trick can be done for sound. Placing visitors inside an “anechoic chamber” with near-perfect acoustic absorption creates an other-worldly sense of absolute silence that is impossible to replicate anywhere else (except in outer space)—truly an iconic supersensory experience.      

Smells were introduced in public attractions in the early 1980s when Disney developed the first “smellitzer machines” for use throughout Epcot, injecting memorable odors matched to specific scenes, locations, and rides. Today multiple companies provide diffusion and infusion machines along with vast catalogs of unforgettable aromas. They can be found abundantly in 4D theaters, cinematic rides, and haunted houses, adding intense supersensory value even outside the conscious awareness of the audience. (Also, see the San Diego Zoo’s use of wildflower and dirt smells inside the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.)

There is every reason to consider adding olfactory immersion in exhibitions, as the sense of smell is closely linked with human memory and emotion—two components of highly relevant visitor engagement. So powerful, in fact, is the association of specific scents with real-world places and events that museums must use them with caution. The exhibit designers for the National Museum of Military Vehicles revised their original plans for inserting synthetic aromas of cordite and swamp gas into the Vietnam War galleries, as they were thought to risk triggering PTSD episodes among the many living Vietnam veterans who comprise one of the museum’s principal audiences.

A great advantage that physical exhibitions have over online media is the visitor’s engagement with hands and feet, not just eyes and ears. Visitors explore in spaces tens of thousands of square feet in size, rather than on five-inch smartphone screens. This physical immersion into large-scale dimensional environments invites a range of full-body supersensory effects and illusions impossible to replicate elsewhere, even with modern VR gear. For instance, one of the most popular encounters in the COSI science museum’s popular “Adventure” exhibition was based on a 100-year-old “Mystery Spot” gag which dramatically distorts the very force of gravity on one’s whole body.

Arousing this full human sensory apparatus is the key to memorable placemaking. The online reviews for any current major exhibition, pop-up museum, or attraction which visitors uniformly describe with terms like “wow factor” are very likely to possess supersensory attributes. But is “wow factor” the end goal? Can supersensory experiences matter more? 

The broad objective in exhibition design, contrasted with purely screen-based forms of experience, is to foster our innermost human instincts for physical exploration, those shaped through natural selection over a million centuries, to bring visitors genuinely closer to their subject matter. Are there not more complex senses (or sensations) that our exhibitions and attractions can aspire to arouse? Those which truly make us human? Can we imagine a supersensory gallery that challenges one’s sense of direction or justice? An attraction that plays with our sense of time, or elicits an emotional sense of empathy or longing, or hope and optimism?

The answer is a profound “yes.”

That spectators are authentically dazzled inside the creations of immersive artists, and are willing to pay for it, does not diminish the immense value in visitors’ own reflections and imaginations. Yes, they arrive within exhibitions and attractions with the ability to see, hear and feel. But they also arrive with the capacity to act, to express ideas and emotions, even to contribute insightfully as creators of their own genuine supersensory experience.

The challenge for exhibitions, attractions, and all public spaces now is to deliver what’s missing in most immersive art and pop-up experiences: a sense of resonance with meaningful questions, ideas, and values larger than ourselves. Those that genuinely respect their audience’s intellectual curiosity and engage the full richness of their supersensory abilities will earn not only lasting commercial success but also set a new benchmark for cultural importance.

Joseph Wisne is the founder and CEO of Roto. Named one of the world’s top 50 museum influencers for 2021, Joseph has helped create more than a dozen new museums and 200 exhibition and attraction projects, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Northern Virginia Science Center, COSI, and the new National Museum of Military Vehicles.