From panoramas and 3D to virtual and augmented reality, a persistent trope throughout media history also pervades our dreams: creating the feeling of being present somewhere else. Although we do not take the development of media over time to be teleological or on a path of perpetual improvement, in the case of immersion, audiences seem to search for ever more immersive technologies, initially celebrating depth, breadth, movement and interactivity, but then calling for more. As Robert Barker put it in his 1787 patent for the panorama, the goal is to make people feel ‘as if really on the very spot’, and each new media technology has at one time or another, put itself to this task.


A precursor to modern 3D technology, stereoscopy was a mass medium of the 19th century.

When viewed through a stereoscope, paired photographs taken from slightly different vantage points trick the eye into perceiving depth.

Stereoscopy was the culmination of British inventor Charles Wheatstone’s multi-year quest to create three-dimensional images. Queen Victoria set off a worldwide craze for stereoscopy when she used a stereo viewer at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. By 1856, at least a half million stereoscopes were in circulation. Stereoscopy remained popular until the turn of the century, when it was supplanted by cinema.

The Holmes Stereo Viewer, pictured, was designed for home use. Inexpensive and portable, it remained in production until the mid-20th century.


Panoramic Photography

The dream of capturing the entire human field of vision led photographers to experiment with the techniques that would become panoramic photography.

With the goal of photographing scenes wider than a camera’s lens, German and Austrian photographers developed mechanized cameras that exposed an oversized daguerreotype in sections. Expensive and imprecise, these cameras forced many photographers to resort to the time-consuming process of piecing together individual prints to create panoramas. The 1888 invention of flexible film made panoramas cheaper and easier to create. Within a decade, panoramic cameras were widely available.

Under the slogan “The Hitherto Impossible in Photography is Our Specialty,” the George R. Lawrence Company pioneered the use of aerial panoramas. Lawrence and his team strapped panoramic cameras to unmanned kites to photograph San Francisco just weeks after the devastating 1906 earthquake.


Living Postcards

More than 90% of the films created in the first decade of cinema were documentaries.

Soon after the invention of the motion picture camera in 1890s, filmmakers turned it on the world around them. Nonfiction shorts, known as “actualities,” were among the most popular films of the era.

Actualities captured the everyday—workers leaving a factory, a train arriving at a station—as well as the unfamiliar. France’s Lumiere brothers established a network of camera operators that shot and sent actuality footage around the globe.

Operational from 1895 to 1928, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company made more than 3000 films, including this actuality short of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. From its founding until 1902, American Mutoscope shot on 68mm film, hoping to avoid patent suits from Thomas A. Edison, who used 35 mm—now industry standard. The results were visually immersive high-resolution images that earned American Mutoscope’s films the name “Living Postcards.”



Early films gave moviegoers immersive views into distant locales.

This thirteen-minute film, which consists of a single extended shot from the front of a moving cable car, gave theatergoers the experience of traveling through down San Francisco’s Market Street in 1906. Not long afterward, on April 18, 1906, a historic earthquake would destroy the busy, bustling world the film captures.

This film was part of a genre of films known as ‘phantom train rides’, popular in England and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Hale’s Tours of the World” exhibited films of this type using actual train coaches as cinemas, intensifying the immersive effect and taking audiences on journeys down the roads and rails of local and exotic locales.



In the 1920s, immersive planetarium documentaries brought images of the night sky to rapt audiences.

The challenge of mapping the heavens captivated scientists from Ancient Greece to the modern era. The erection of the first modern planetarium in Jena, Germany in 1923 was the culmination of a 2,000 year quest to depict the movements of the night sky. Nicknamed the “Wonder of Jena” and featuring more than 4,500 images of stars and planets, the planetarium was an instant sensation.

“Never before was an instrument created… so instructive as this; never before one so bewitching.” -Elis Stromgren, astronomer, 1923

Pin-points of light inside a darkened hemisphere were sufficient to produce an immersive documentary of the night sky. Within a decade, planetariums had been erected in cities worldwide.


At their best, immersive media enable us to see past the technology and encounter once-hidden aspects of the world around us.

The word ‘medium’ has many meanings in English, most going back to classical Latin. But by an odd chance, two ‘new’ meanings first appeared around 1851: medium as a channel for mass communications (‘the photographic medium’) and medium as an intermediary between the living and the dead (‘the medium organized a séance’). One transmits information from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’, and the other ‘makes present’ that which is impossibly distant. The immersive urge that has accompanied our media from the very start seems to embrace both definitions, to tell us about another place and to make that place as present as possible

The curious thing about immersive media technologies is how profoundly we are at first moved by them, and how quickly we tire of them, seeking something even more present, even more like our every day experience of the world. Paradoxically, we seek a special perceptual experience and then go on to judge it by its similarity to daily life. Our most apparatus-intensive uses of media, with special viewers, screens and environments, also happen to be those that we use to produce the most ordinary of effects.


In the Labyrinth by Roman Kroitor by Colin Low & by Hugh O'Connor, National Film Board of Canada

Experiments with multiscreen documentary paved the way for IMAX filmmaking.

“The world isn’t going to stand still, and the movies won’t either.” -Roman Kroitor, founder of the IMAX Corporation, 1970

Filmmakers have experimented with large format filmmaking since the invention of the motion picture camera. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, founded in 1895, filmed on 68mm. In the 1950s, Hollywood studios seeking maximum visual effect popularized large screen technologies like Cinerama and CinemaScope.

Projected on six screens at Montreal’s Expo ’67, the National Film Board of Canada’s In the Labyrinth was a groundbreaking multi-screen cinema event. Within months of the premiere, In the Labyrinth director Roman Kroitor established the Multiscreen Corporation—dedicated to exploring large format cinema.

After experimenting with films projected onto multiple screens, Kroitor and his partners decided a large single image was more visually arresting. Soon thereafter, they changed Multiscreen’s name to IMAX. Kroitor and his collaborators released the documentary Tiger Child, the first film shot on IMAX, at Osaka’s Expo ’70.



In the 1990s, interactive artworks used virtual reality to create immersive landscapes for viewers.

A late twentieth-century portrayal of the horrors of war, this interactive artwork takes the viewer into a flickering, fragmented vision of a war-ravaged landscape.

The viewer carries a camera, an instrument of memory and witness whose capabilities seem all too cold, fleeting, and ephemeral; snapping an image makes a part of the world disappear, to be replaced by something else that is new but still never changes.



An individual, immersive experience uses the latest technologies to transport its users to a virtual mix between Shanghai and Brussels.

Experimental theatre companies have been exploring the intersection of technology and performance since the beginning of the 20th century. Collectives like New York City’s Wooster Group incorporate video footage into highly mediated adaptations of Western classics. Belgian director Ivo van Hove often projects live video feeds of his actors mid-performance, probing the boundary between cinema and theatre.

CREW is a company that operates on the border between art and science, between performance art and new technology. Artist Eric Joris develops his live-art projects, hybrid performances with electronic and digital media at their core, in close collaboration with a collective of artists and scientists.

Their 2010 project C.A.P.E. (Cave Automatic Personal Environment) shifts the user’s presence from one place to another in no time. Users are hoisted into individual, state-of-the-art immersive tech-suits, combining headphones, video glasses, a light shielding mask, tracker, camera, backpack, and laptop. Helped along by a virtual guide, they step into another body and walk around in a far away city or a far away time. Showcased at IDFA DocLab 2011, C.A.P.E. was first presented at the World Expo in Shanghai in September 2010. It transports users to a fictitious city, a mix between Shanghai and CREW’s hometown of Brussels. In this way, they can experience for themselves what the future of cinema might be like.



A digital recording of the residents of a Toronto high-rise shows their work with an architect to improve their home.

This is the third chapter in the interactive documentary HIGHRISE, in which Katerina Cizek investigates what it means to live in a city in the 21st century.

The 1000th Tower featured the residents of a slightly run down skyscraper on the outskirts of Toronto. Out My Window, winner of the first IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling in 2010, applied the same concept to 13 city dwellers from around the world, including São Paolo, Amsterdam and Bangalore. One Millionth Tower interweaves the local and global approaches of the first two projects. “Hyperglocal” is the word the developers use for their approach. We meet the Torontonians from The 1000th Tower again, brainstorming with their architect on how they can breathe new life into their tower block. Their ideas come to life thanks to computer programmers and animators, and both the process and the result are shown online in a virtual 3D-environment. Even though the project is limited to this one apartment building in just one city, the story resonates on a global scale: a large proportion of the high-rises that are home to over a billion people worldwide could use a new coat of paint. Cizek wants to be a driving force behind social change, instead of simply capturing it as most traditional documentary filmmakers do.



The entire human field of vision is captured on Condition ONE’s camera systems, and the stories are edited for the tablet application to create an immersive experience.

Condition ONE is reinventing photojournalism into a full-immersion, virtual reality experience.

The iPad app Condition ONE was developed by photojournalist Danfung Dennis to re-engage the audience with the realities that he and his colleagues were revealing. Instead of capturing the world in flat photographic images, the Condition ONE team uses a custom camera system, fusing the ethics, method and aesthetics of photojournalism with the tradition of filmmaking and virtual reality.

These experiences can be viewed as stand-alone items or as a series of clips, accessed by theme or by author. Holding the tablet, the user is put at the center of the action – whether it’s at a bloody conflict in pre-revolutionary Libya or during a chaotic police arrest on the streets of New Orleans. Tilting the tablet tilts the camera accordingly, allowing users to choose which area of the 360-degree image they want to look at.

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