Experience, Immersion and Perception: Communication Design for
Urban and Natural Environments
Daniela CALABI1, Elisa CHIODO2, Sabrina SCURI3
(1) Dipartimento di Design, Scuola del Design, Politecnico di Milano, Milan, Italy
This paper highlights the role of Communication Design as an agent for the promotion of territory.
Our research arises from the need to communicate the place identity by sharing different typology of
documents, which together represent a heritage of memories, both tangible and intangible.
The analysis of cultural tourism industry reveals that travellers are in search of experiences that involve
several aspects of a place. In other words, they're interested in discovering landscape - as it is defined by the
Council of Europe - its meaning and aesthetic identity. In this scenario the cultural promotion of territory
should become more “experiential” and our research tries to propose some guidelines in this direction.
On the one hand, we discuss the role of perception and immersive representation as means to gain
experience. On the other, we present the potentialities offered by devices that act as mediator between
human and ambient. We will present some case studies to highlight how a combination of different
multimedia contents and a high interaction level allows us both to make accessible several kind of
information and to catch the user attention through immersive visual experiences. We argue that
Communication Design has to develop new communication modalities, not only for tourism purposes but
also to support inhabitants in understanding their own cultural identity.
Keywords: Communication Design, Experience Design, Immersivity, Landscape, Cultural Tourism
In order to foster sustainable development, several public and private institutions are interested in
establishing and implementing policies focused on the protection of cultural heritage and the valorization of
local identity. This is a crucial issue for our society and an hard challenge for those who deal with the
promotion of territory. Basically, it means designing new forms of relationship between people, places and
To this aim, we should start by reconsidering the concept of identity since it is the synthesis of such
relationship. As stated by Ypma, identity «appeals to collective meaning (memoria) that in its turn facilitates
the identification processes of groups and individuals» . As a territory is always in transformation, as well
is the identity. In this sense, we can assert that it does not actually exists the "identity" but rather many
identities  which have shaped the whole environment, both urban and natural, over time. These past
identities are simultaneously present and, taken together, allow to figure out the roots of memory shared by
the local community, nurturing the sense of belonging.
Nevertheless, most of them are hidden. As suggested by Calabi , many times they can be identified only
by means of “minimal traces”, both tangible and intangible. In order to reconstruct the common ground on
which people, places and culture converge - the identity(ies) -, these traces must be gathered, interpreted
and made accessible through an operation of decoding and translation. This operation involves both poietics
and aesthetics; it regards the meaning creation process which is a matter of design and the main expertise
of a communication designer. For this reason, the promotion of territory is of great interest to Communication
Design. It acts as a “mediator” that allows the "communicative access" to an heritage of content tha t
otherwise would remain hidden. The value of Design research is even more evident if we consider that these
content have not only a different nature (they could be tangible or intangible, related to past or present, more
strictly connected with natural or rather with urban/human environment) but they can be also of different
typology (texts, videos, sounds, images, etc.). Therefore, promoting a territory in the contemporary scenario
requires an open approach to new media and technologies, since they affect the way in which content are
produced and conveyed.
Furthermore the transformation of media occurs so rapidly that often we have to deal with "hybrid formats" in
which innovation and tradition converge. For this reason, the metamorphosis of devices must be followed by
the development of new representation languages.
The research presented in this paper is based on the need to merge and manage the different typology of
content which represent both tangible and intangible aspects of territories. Basically, it aims at the
development of a different interpretive model based on an "augmented" perception of the place identity. To
this aim, the research focuses on the potentialities of digital technologies whose exploitation allows us to
design experimental communication formats.
2. Cultural Tourism & Landscape
Today the cultural tourism phenomenon is rapidly changing, moving away from the traditional model of
"mass cultural tourism" . Currently it is mainly a local tourism, characterized by short-break holidays and
an increased interest of travellers towards the less popular destinations. Generally speaking, two are the
main features of cultural tourism demand. On the one hand, the attention of travellers for natural, social and
cultural aspects of a place: its identities. On the other hand, an increased need of engaging experiences. In
this context, the traditional model of tourism promotion does not work since it leverages mainly on
stereotypes and well-established symbols which produce a stagey image of the place, far from its actual
reality. We rather observe a new sensibility in travellers, which is oriented toward experience, discovery and
a more direct contact with the hidden identity of places. In this scenario, paraphrasing Picard , the global
tourism supply should be focused on “glocal” content and the emotional enjoyment of places .
Furthermore, while in the past the cities relied heavily on their “real cultural capital” (the tangible heritage) ,
recent studies  reveal that the attention of public is focusing more on intangible heritage, popular culture
and storytelling. As an evidence, the data reported by Richards  show that after 2005 the main Italian
cultural capitals, that usually exploit their physical legacy with the past, have registered a progressive
decrease of their rate of growth in tourism industry. Therefore, we observe the need of a different
communication strategy, which should be aimed at the creation of engaging and emotional representations
of the place. In other words, to better meet the current cultural tourism demand the destination image - the
sum of beliefs, ideas, impressions, and expectations about a tourist destination area  - should rely on, or
reveal, the "Landscape".
According to the Council of Europe «“Landscape” means an area, as perceived by people, whose character
is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors». Furthermore, it is «an essential
component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural
heritage, and a foundation of their identity» . But not only, landscape is also a perceptual phenomenon
that belongs to the domain of the aesthetic experiences . Hence, we consider the landscape a tool to
gain knowledge by means of experience, direct or virtual. It's meant as something we can explore as well as
a means to expresses identity. We assert that guaranteeing the communicative access to “landscape” is
essential in order to give new value to the cultural capital of places. Thus, the landscape must be decoded
and translated in a clear and comprehensible representation, and the potentialities offered by new digital
technologies in terms of representation languages as well as interaction modalities with content, are powerful
tools to reach this goal.
3. Experience, Immersivity and Perception
As it has been revealed by the analysis on cultural tourism, currently the concept of travel is quite different
from the past. It has taken the form of an exploration aimed at seeking meaningful experiences, especially
from the emotional viewpoint. In this scenario, the tourism supply must go beyond the boundaries of product
to become experience; and this challenge affects also communication, as it is the first contact we have with a
As suggested by Martelloni , the new trend leads us to look at tourism industry from the perspective of the
experience economy. According to Pine and Gilmore  there are four “experience realms”: aesthetic,
escapist, entertainment and educational. Moreover Forlani  suggests that the central one to gain a richer
touristic experience is the aesthetic dimension, since tourism is always a "total aesthetic experience". In an
aesthetic experience «individuals are immersed in an event or environment but have little or no effect on it,
leaving the environment (but not themselves) essentially untouched» [11, p. 53]. Therefore, those who take
part in an aesthetic experience will want "to be there" . From another perspective, D'Orazio  -
researcher and PhD in Social Science and Digital Media - has analyzed the literal meaning of the term
"experience" concluding that it's strictly connected to the idea of immersion since both of them proceed from
the interaction between space and body. Specifically, he argues that experience is a quality of immersion.
This statement seems to be supported by Ortoleva. He provides an interesting analysis of the effect of new
digital media on tourists behaviours, suggesting that it results in «a request of experience rather than pure
knowing. A request of immersion» [14, p. 97].
Starting from these assumptions, the research we're carrying on focuses on the concept of immersivity
meant as a form of aesthetic experience that leverages on the human perception as well as a
communication modality which is able to satisfy the cultural tourists' need of experience. Our main goals
consists in the development of a grammar - a set of guideline - for design of immersive communication
formats to promote and represent "landscape".
The research methodology consists of a literature review, mainly in the area of human perception, and a
case studies analysis. The literature review aims to investigate the perceptual aspects that affect (or may
affect) the feeling of immersion, in order to identify the main pillars of an immersive communication.
Especially, it deepens the concept of naive perception as a means to gain knowledge through experience.
The case studies analysis aims at identifying communication formats and/or kinds of representation that
present a place in an immersive way by leveraging on perceptual stimuli usually involved in the exploration
of an environment (both urban and natural). We’ve chosen this qualitative method since it allows both to
address the further research activities and to validate the findings of literature review.
Nowadays, the topic of “immersivity” is tackled by several disciplines. Nevertheless its meaning appears
quite confused. Many scholars and professionals claim that immersivity is the future of communication, but
they neither explain what immersivity really means in this context and nor provide scientific models for
immersive communication design. While the common belief considers immersivity as a prerogative of Virtual
Reality Environments (VREs) and so the result of specific technologies, like CAVE or Head-Mounted
Displays, our goal consists in understanding how to obtain an immersive effect through traditional devices,
for instance a pc desktop - therefore without using Virtual Reality technologies. By analyzing the concept of
immersivity in a wider context of inquiry, we’ve found evidence that technology itself is not the only means to
gain immersion. Immersivity concerns also the domain of representation. In the present communication
context, the sensibility of users toward contents is changed; it has become synaesthetic . That's why a
message able to involve the human senses in a coordinated way is defined by literature as “immersive”.
Therefore, we can talk about immersivity also with regard to the convergence of multimedia contents. In this
sense, to develop a communication that has an immersive effect on the observer we have to manage
different multimedia contents which have value per se but also influence each other. Here, the challenge –
and the role of design – consists in keeping together different kinds of representation within a communication
product managing their interrelation. In other words, we have to design a multimodal experience of fruition
within a complex and articulated system of signs.
4. State of the art
4.1 Place and Experience
In the previous paragraph we had seen the strict link between the two topics: “experience” and “immersivity”.
In order to design and promote real immersive experiences of places we have to identify how communication
devices and languages can create the good conditions in order to make visitors interface with places.
A real interaction with an urban or natural environment presupposes the ability of visitors to get in touch with
them surroundings. We are interested to design communication formats and experimenting new immersive
languages that can support this ability encouraging a contact with places in order to help visitors catch the
deep “sense of place”.
Thanks to the web, new geo-location technologies and the availability of multimedia content in real time,
often bottom up, the way of exploring a space has changed: today users live a “pre-experience” of places, an
“active experience” in the place itself, and a “post-experience” (e.g. with comments and ratings of visitors on
forum) . Furthermore this ability of specific communication devices to facilitate the contact between
visitors and places presupposes the design of specific interaction levels. These levels exemplify how and
when the user, while using the device, can interact with the several contents related to a place.
In order to identify these levels we had take in consideration the semiotics analysis of the travel guide
described by Alice Giannitrapani  and we had identified three predominant functions: directive function,
informative function, and interactive mediation function. These functions focus on the moment in which the
users access contents: before, during, and after the exploration. The devices with a prevalence of directive
function guide and precede the user in the exploration of places through the anticipation of contents, offering
a “pre-experience” of them; in fact, the fruition of information precedes the contact with the actual place and
usually, even if the device is portable in situ, the contents do not change. An example is the traditional
touristic guidebook. Its purpose is to push and help the user both during the visit and before the real “active-
exploration”, identifying landmarks, itineraries and information on the area. The devices with a prevalence of
informative function give information about the site, without inviting the user to explore the place. In this
case, getting in contact with spaces is not relevant to the communication goal. These devices provide a
representation of the environment, such as data maps. Instead the devices with a prevalence of interactive
mediation function have the highest level of mediation between the user and places; indeed, their use is
principally in situ. These devices have both a programmatic and a performative aim - such as mobile guides
with geo-location technology, augmented reality or use of sound - as well as information purposes, such as
descriptive signage and art installations. Their main feature is high interactivity.
In next paragraph we want to present how two different communication projects can enhance a “pre-
experience” or an “active experience” of a place.
4.2 Case study: Soundwalk audio tours
The first case study project is related to promote an “active-experience”.
Travel and visiting a place is the first aim of communication projects as, for example, AR travel guides and,
audio guides and way finding applications and installations. These kinds of projects connect the topic of
“experience” to the action of “motion” and “exploration”.
Erich J. Leed  points out that at the Indo-European root of the word "experience" has linked meanings
related to the motion and to the travel. Interfacing with the environment, doing an experience of the spaces,
so means «to put us in a condition in which the landscape may reveal itself and making another effort with
our body: we must go, walk, make a dive without cultural preconception and experience it» («mettersi nella
condizione per cui quel paesaggio possa svelarsi, fare ancora uno sforzo con il nostro corpo: bisogna
andarci, camminarci, immergersi senza preconcetti culturali, farne un”esperienza diretta») [18, p. 171].
Giuliana Bruno  discusses the topics of “Experience” and “Motion” also. She assumes that a strong
interaction with the environment presupposes the capacity of the visitor to get in touch with the place,
through a perceptual shift from optical to haptical, from sight-seeing to site-seeing. This skill, that needs to be
designed and supported, allows people to “experience the landscape", and put the visitor in the condition of
perceive the sense of place.
Among the new models of devices for urban explorations Soundwalk audio tours  is a really interesting
case study for its ability to push the visitor to feel two different experiences in the same moment: physical
and acoustical. The result is an interesting "perceptual disorientation" .
Fig. 1: Souldwalk audio tour: the communication system.
Soundwalk is an international collective, founded in 2000 and based in the city of New York and the audio
tours are multimedia audio guides. The concept of Soundwalk audio tour is funded on the idea of an audio
guide that, by representative authors narrations, allows exploring the urban environment providing an
immersive experience in the real world. Using representative actors for the narrations, scenarios and
soundtracks, the device offers new ways to discover the landmarks between the flâneur walk and cinematic
experience. Initially created for support web and paper the project allowed users only to download podcasts
and maps of the different tours. Now the audio tours have become a mobile application. The application
offers multimedia contents (images, videos), a strong immersive audio, interactive maps and real-time
information through the user”s geolocation. The mobile application offers several level of information: in it we
can find the interactive mediation function. Before the visit the audio tour offers basic information and photos
of the different landmarks. Only when the visitor is in loco the application shows practical information and
more contents related to specific places. At the end of the experience the visitor can also share comments
on social network and recommend the visit to friends (see Figure 1). The acoustic tours, created initially to
explore the city of New York, now are been developed for several areas: district and entire cities (e.g.
Beijing, Shanghai, Varanasi, Hong Kong). The latest audio tours are the Puma Trainaway acoustic
itineraries, sponsored by Puma, for the visitor that runs through the city, and Museums Tours (Louis Vuitton
Voyages, Louvre, etc.).
4.3 Case study: Soul patron web documentary
Nowadays the communication of urban or natural environments involves an open view and an analytic ability
in order to capture both the different approaches in representing the contents related to a place and the
continuous development and hybridizations of media and languages used for this purpose.
A useful example to show how the communication devices can offer a “pre-experience” of the places
transferring different levels of information, making them accessible, are the web documentaries. In them is
clear how the emerge of new technologies has led to hybrid formats that combine elements of continuity with
traditional forms with elements of strong innovation. With interactive documentary, web documentary or web-
doc, we refer to a particular type of documentary invented 2000, as an interactive multimedia product
designed for web.
From the point of view of interaction, the web-doc lends itself to user participation; the viewer becomes an
active participant, who can choose the way of explore the documentary and also often share contents. From
the perspective of media, whether a classic documentary is an audiovisual product, the web-doc involves the
use of integrated contents such as audio, video, graphic, text, info graphics and hyperlinks.
We can highlight distinct features of web documentaries such as interactivity in experience and its openness
during the content narration. Sandra Gaudenzi  explains how different degrees of interactivity can help to
classify these new forms of documentaries. Gaudenzi presents three different levels of interactivity that
determine the categories of documentary. We can find a “semi-closed interactivity” when the user can
browse but not change the content, a “semi-open interactivity” when the user can participate but not change
the structure of the interactive documentary, or a “completely open interactivity” when the user and the
interactive documentary constantly change and adapt to each other.
Furthermore Arnau Gifreu  discussed how we can also categorize the different modalities of interact with
the narration: “linear documentaries”; “on line non linear multimedia documentaries”; “on line generative
documentaries”. The online linear documentaries have a narrative structure divided into themes, sequences,
and chapters. In them contents are presented in a linear way or divided into different parts. The on line non-
linear multimedia documentaries offer one or more modes of interaction and contents organization making
the user freer during the navigation. Into the on line generative documentaries the user is not only limited to
viewing content in a linear way or navigating in different modes , but instead he can interact leaving an
imprint of his time in the application by comments and shared contents adding personal experiences to the
The case study that we will present shows a strong integration of multimedia contents and several level of
interaction. It illustrates an innovative use of the languages in interactive digital communication.
Soul Patron  is a semi-open web documentary presented by Frederik Rieckher in 2010. The web doc
wants to present the mythical protector of deceased children, Mizuki Jizo, by a digital journey through Japan.
The guide of the journey is Tokotoko, an animated bunny that was once intended to be a gift for a stillborn
baby. The project consists of 34 scenes and a non-linear narration. The first scene presents Tikotoko as
guide during the user travel. After the web-doc explains the several different ways of interact with the
scenes. The journey begins at the Kumakuru temple and travels via Tokyo and Osaka to the Mizuko Jizo
house of prayer in Kyoto. The places are presented by video with a fixed shot. The audio is composed by
audio track recorded directly in the places and presents the “soundscape”  of the different areas. The
user can interact with each scene, zooming on visual details through close up and receiving links to at least
two other scenes (see Figure 2). Every interactive visual detail is connected with information referred to
social, morphological, religious data. In this web documentary the visual and audio treatments, the possibility
of interact with several typology of content navigating in a non linear ways make possible to offer to user a
strong immersive pre-experience of the places. In the web-doc Soul Patron so we can find a good
experimentation that mix narration, innovative representation by different communication languages and
several level of user content fruition.
Fig. 2:Soul Patron: example of screenshots.
5. The Lomellina project
This research has informed a funded project we are working on which consists in a web-based
communication system (desktop and mobile) for the promotion of Lomellina, a wide rural area near Milan
(Italy). This territory is not at all considered as a suitable tourism destination, in spite of the efforts spent by
local institutions. Nevertheless, a deeper analysis of its assets has revealed a considerable cultural, natural
and historical heritage, which well represents the urban and natural environment of Lomellina, and needs to
To represent and promote its “landscape”, we have used several immersive communication formats which
bring together different kinds of "texts" (photos, documents, videos, etc.) in order to provide a visual
synthesis as much as possible immersive - from panoramic photography to interactive 360-degree
photography. The combination of these representations results in an “augmented” experience, which is able
to involve haptic perception only by means of visual information. Since there are many viewpoints through
which observing the landscape - from the 360-degree panoramic up to the extreme close-up - the sight has
an explorative dimension (see Figure 3). That's because our impressions about a place mainly arise from the
movement of our body in the space. On the one hand, the eye is able to capture in a single glance the
surrounding environment. On the other hand, it is also able to provide synthetic information about textures,
colours and shape of objects. Through the close-up, the eye is guided in a visual search for meaningful
We can provide an "augmented" perception also through images and sounds that exploit perceptual
memory. As a matter of fact, when we closely observe an object, the visual information about the mate rial of
which it is made recall the corresponding tactile sensation (see Figure 4). Therefore, we can consider
textures, colours and shadows as visual and tactile information at the same time. As suggested by Aristotle
, memory is the driving force behind the experience; we can feel ourselves emotionally and perceptually
immersed in a past situation simply by observing an image. In this sense, an extreme close-up on dew,
combined with a long shot of a rice field enveloped by the winter fog, recalls a specific mood and nurtures
our ability to perceive the atmosphere - the landscape - so depicted (see Figure 5).
Fig. 3:The Lomellina project: combination of viewpoints.
Fig. 4:The Lomellina project: close-up.
Fig. 5:The Lomellina project: the mood of place.
The tourism demand has highlighted how the topics of Experience, Immersivity and Perception are
becoming more and more indispensable requisites in the discovery of places. The growing interest of public
and private institutions in the enhancement and representation of the “sense of place” needs to be supported
by adequate communication systems.
Promoting a place so means to make accessible its identities through specific languages and appropriate
formats: that is the aim of Communication Design for urban and natural environment.
The project for the promotion of Lomellina here described has been realized by the research group DCxT:
Design della Comunicazione per il Territorio (Politecnico di Milano - Design Department) for Consorzio
A.S.T. of Vigevano (Agenzia per lo Sviluppo Territoriale), under a framework agreement between Consorzio
A.S.T. and Politecnico di Milano Design Department. It's a part of the project "Leonardo, le acque e il riso"
presented by Consorzio A.S.T. to Fondazione Cariplo and funded in 2011 under the call “Valorizzare il
patrimonio culturale attraverso la gestione integrata dei beni".
Consorzio A.S.T. di Vigevano is gratefully acknowledged. The authors wish to thank the other members of
the research group DCxT Professor Giovanni Baule and Professor Marco Quaggiotto.
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