Beyond Boundaries: Navigating the Art and Ethics of Hyper-Reality Design

Left hand side of the image shows the cover of the book being reviewed, while the right hand side shows the book's author (Curtis Hickman) sitting in a chair facing the camera

If you’ve just lost ability to differentiate between simulated reality and the authentic one, you’ve attained hyperreality, as defined by Jean Baudrillard, and described more recently in Curtis Hickman’s Hyper-Reality: The Art of Designing Impossible Experiences. Hickman, a renowned experience designer and co-founder of The Void, introduces a design framework for the creation of immersive hyper-reality experiences in his recently published work. Drawing inspiration from postmodernist, Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation, and inspiration from his experiences as a magician, Hickman develops a design framework that deconstructs the technical procedures involved in materializing imaginative concepts into multisensory experiences. These virtual simulations create the illusion of attainability for experiences that would otherwise be unachievable.

Hyper-Reality presents its content uniquely. Artwork of geometrical shapes designed by Zebra Creative beautifully builds a spatial theme with red headings in contrast to black backdrops in pages that offer spatially unbound illusion. Hickman’s writing creatively meets his audience as if the reader was in the room with him, with anecdotes and footnotes creating an informal conversation between the author and reader. Hyper-Reality also provides numerous case studies created by The Void demonstrating how their audience traverses from reality to believing the setting of their simulations by engaging the senses, by establishing a feeling of presence, and by forgetting the technology that deployed the simulation. Hickman recommends the book should be read by sequence, which is divided into five primary parts.

Part I: Hyper-Reality

              A central approach for Hickman to craft his experiential design of immersive experiences, is evolving postmodernist Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and simulacra with the capabilities of extended reality technologies. Baudrillard believes society has become dominated by simulations that have made the distinction between reality and simulations of reality ambiguous (Baudrillard, 1994). Aspiring to craft Baudrillard’s hyperreality concept into fruition and expand from it, Hickman (2023) begins his book by defining hyper-reality as, “the practical illusion of an impossible reality so convincing the mind accepts it as reality itself,” (p. 35). According to Hickman, well-designed illusions serve as simulacra that make the imaginary seem plausible.

The foundation of constructing implausible scenarios is rooted in Hickman’s 52 principles of design, which are organized into four distinct categories: Guest Laws, Story Laws, World Laws, and Magic Laws. Each category contains thirteen laws. Hickman organized his laws similarly to a deck of cards. The analogy he employs, likening the organization of these principles to a deck of cards, offers a profound insight into his methodology. Much like a well-structured deck, these laws are systematically arranged and strategically utilized, ensuring that each element plays a specific role in the overall composition. The guests are a priority to Hickman with their safety established as the first law. Thus, the guest laws include considerations related to user comfort, safety, and engagement. The story laws revolve around the narrative elements of the experience and story building. Then, the world laws pertain to the immersive environment itself, encompassing aspects like environment design, spatial considerations, and sensory stimuli. Last, Hickman’s magic laws delve into the technical aspects, encompassing the covert and overt illusions, special effects that make the virtual environment magical and the impossible plausible.

Orb with a high up view of a city inside of it. There is a bright moon in the centre of the city skyline. The orb is wrapped in wispy bight light

Prior to beginning the book, Hickman defines two key terms used interchangeably when explaining various applications of design methods: inner and outer reality. Hickman (2023) introduces the concepts of inner and outer reality earlier in the book to scaffold the reader to the magic applications he presents in the second half of his book. He states, “During a magic effect there are two perceptions of what’s going on. One reality is what the magician knows to be true, the other is the false reality the spectators are witnessing,” (p. 12).

Inner reality is the individual’s perspective of events from inside the experience, while outer reality is the true perspective from outside the experience (Hickman, 2023, p. 13).

Part II: Living a story

              A key concept in Hickman’s framework is the interplay between diegesis and mimesis in story crafting for hyper-real experiences. He presents diegesis as the explicit telling of a story, while mimesis involves the experiential representation of a story world. As Hickman explains, “Diegesis is how a story is told and mimesis is how a story is represented. In other words, if diegesis is the book that tells you the story, mimesis is the illustration that shows it to you. Mimesis mimics the story” (p. 53). He defines mimetic storybuilding as “the art of crafting experiences through the imitation of a reality that results in the creation of story” (p. 59). Unlike traditional storytelling which relies on controlling the narrative, Hickman notes that virtual reality is an inherently mimetic medium due to its nature of offering participants agency. His emphasis on granting participants the freedom to co-author their journey enables deeper investment in the imagined reality. Hickman explains, “Focalization is the perspective through which a story is seen. In our case it’s the perspective of our guests. We can influence it, but we can’t control it… What we do control is the way that a guest interacts with the story and how the story interacts with them,” (p. 73). In essence, the story is not told, but built by the audience’s engagement with the story.

Part III: Magic and covert illusions

              Hickman applies principles of magic theory to the framework of his experiential design for hyper-reality experiences. He defines magic as “the art of creating an illusion of an impossible reality” (p.141), drawing parallels to the goals of immersive experience design. Magicians use techniques like misdirection to, “… direct the audience towards the effect and away from the method,” (p. 148). Misdirection is a significant method in immersive experience design because it essentially influences the guest’s perception of the experience and leads the guest to the conviction of believing the simulation.

After establishing the fundamentals of magic theory, Hickman begins to explain the meaning and application of covert illusions. Covert illusions are deceptive experiences that work without the participant realizing they are being deceived. To further explain how magic is used in hyper-reality, Hickman classifies seven core perceptions that can be covertly manipulated: presence, space, time, motion, matter, force, and life. Manipulating presence, or the feeling of inhabiting a place, is essential for creating acceptance of the impossible reality. For instance, the perception of presence can be manipulated in a hyper-reality experience by sensory concordance, “Do your senses agree with each other?” (p.182). In order to manipulate the perception of presence the guest cannot experience sensory conflict. Hickman provides an anecdote of encountering a Tyrannosaurus rex in a simulation. The dinosaur stopped directly in front of him and let out a roar. “He looked fantastic. The headset and the graphics were state of the art,” Hickman describes, “…What pulled me out [of presence] was the lack of vibration beneath my feet as the Tyrannosaurus advanced and the absence of hot breath from his roar,” (p. 178).

“Meticulous attention to sensory details in simulations manipulates the guest’s feelings of presence in the environment and convinces them to believe the reality.”

Meticulous attention to sensory details in simulations manipulates the guest’s feelings of presence in the environment and convinces them to believe the reality. Hickman reminds his readers, “What a person perceives through the senses is actually less vital than what they think about what they perceive,” (p. 151). An effective illusion not only immerses the guest but convinces them of their presence in the setting. Hickman emphasizes its vital to consider how guests engage with their senses to interpret the experience.

Part IV: Magic and overt illusions

Building upon the foundational principles of covert illusions, Hickman delves into the realm of overt illusions. He introduces a taxonomy of overt illusions known as “Hickman’s Twelve Conjuring Classes.” Overt illusions, as defined by Hickman, are “effects that are understood to be impossible within their own given reality” (p.173). Hickman begins the overt illusions by elucidating vanishing and distancing techniques.

The method of overt illusions is expertly crafted using these techniques in the Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment experience. The vanishing technique involves the use of dummy avatars that mimic the movements of real participants, creating the illusion of their disappearance as these avatars are pulled away from view. Meanwhile, the distance technique introduces physical and temporal separation between the virtual and physical aspects of the experience. Participants’ virtual avatars move away from their physical selves, or vice versa, creating a profound disconnect between perception and reality. Synchronization of audio enhances the realism, ensuring that all participants feel fear and shock simultaneously, even though their experiences are distinct. In essence, to effectively deploy overt illusions, the boundary between the inner reality and outer reality needs to overlap. It’s in this defining moment of time in which the experience becomes magical.

While Hyper-Reality presents an intriguing design framework for constructing impossible experiences, Hickman’s first design law on safety could be expanded in a follow-up edition. Though he rightly lists safety as the foremost priority in design, there is opportunity to provide greater guidance on safeguarding users across physical, psychological, moral and societal domains (Steele et al., 2020).  

In terms of physical considerations, safety should extend to health and well-being concerns, including issues like dizziness, falls, elevated heart rates, or tripping within simulated environments (Steele et al., 2020). It is crucial to acknowledge that virtual reality simulations can induce physiological responses, such as fluctuations in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels (Lavoie et al., 2021). When considering user well-being, it is critical for the designer to take into account the level of tension that the simulations impose on the user. Hickman may enhance the user-centric design approach in Hyper-reality through a more comprehensive examination of the diverse degrees of tension induced in users throughout particular experiences, as well as by discerning user constraints. 

Psychological considerations encompass post-traumatic stress disorder, desensitization to violent stimuli, and diminished empathic responsiveness (Steele et al., 2020). Depending on content of the experience and the background of the user, immersive simulations can cause some users to experience emotional harm (Lavoie et al., 2021). In addition, extended reality technologies can increase an individual’s presence proximity which could induce them to feel traumatized by an experience or trigger a past traumatic emotional response (McIntosh, 2022). Addressing psychological considerations in hyper-reality design practices is essential to safeguard users from potential emotional harm and ensure that the experiences provided offer support for users.

Moreover, moral considerations should be addressed, including the ethical implications of personal data collection and the potential exploitation of vulnerable populations (Steele et al., 2020). Currently, extended reality technologies collect sensitive data from the users that could be used to study and influence users (Abraham et al., 2022). Notably, in the Future section of his book, Hickman expresses an interest in the convergence of artificial intelligence with hyper-reality. As hyper-reality technologies continue to advance, it is crucial for designers to prioritize user privacy and the underlying motivations behind data collection. Ethical assessments of participants’ behavior within simulations are also pertinent (Francis et al., 2016). When users have agency, they sometimes will commit morally egregious acts that differ from their behavior in reality. Considering the heightened sense of realism offered by virtual reality, it is imperative for developers to possess a clear understanding of the boundaries that should be established in VR experiences (Lavoie et al., 2021). Moreover, they should also be cognizant of the potential adverse effects that may arise from the inclusion of morally contentious content (Lavoie et al., 2021).

Social problems encompass the lack of interaction and challenges in forming interpersonal connections in reality, as opposed to the user’s involvement in simulated environments (Steele et al., 2020). Furthermore, designers should examine how age and cognitive differences impact susceptibility to believing simulations are real when crafting age-appropriate experiences (Liao et al., 2019). Thus, multisensory manipulations and the belief of presence in simulations is important to consider in regards of the user’s age. Numerous presumably advantageous features of virtual reality simulation inherently harbor the possibility of adverse consequences (McIntosh, 2022).

The true magic lies not only in the illusions crafted but in the ethical parameters that safeguard the essence of what it means to be human. Hickman’s imaginative vision sets the stage for innovation, but true ethical design means coupling boundless creativity with moral responsibility for humanity. While Hyper-reality offers innovative methods for creating immersive experiences, there is a need for a more comprehensive exploration of the ethical implications associated with design. 


Abraham, M., Saeghe, P., Mcgill, M., & Khamis, M. (2022). Implications of xr on privacy, security and behaviour: Insights from experts. In Nordic Human-Computer Interaction Conference (pp. 1-12).

Francis, K. B., Howard, C., Howard, I. S., Gummerum, M., Ganis, G., Anderson, G., & Terbeck, S. (2016). Virtual morality: Transitioning from moral judgment to moral action? PloS One, 11(10), e0164374-e0164374.

Hickman, C. (2023). Hyper-Reality: The Art of Designing Impossible Experiences. Independently Published.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan Press.

Lavoie, R., Main, K., King, C., & King, D. (2021). Virtual experience, real consequences: The potential negative emotional consequences of virtual reality gameplay. Virtual Reality: The Journal of the Virtual Reality Society, 25(1), 69-81.

Liao, T., Jennings, N. A., Dell, L., & Collins, C. (2019). Could the virtual dinosaur see you? understanding Children’s perceptions of presence and reality distinction in virtual reality environments. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 12(2)

McIntosh, V. (2022). Dialing up the danger: Virtual reality for the simulation of risk. Frontiers in Virtual Reality, 3

Steele, P., Burleigh, C., Kroposki, M., Magabo, M., & Bailey, L. (2020). Ethical considerations in designing virtual and augmented reality Products—Virtual and augmented reality design with students in mind: Designers’ perceptions. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 49(2), 219-238.

Recommended citation

O’Neil, A. (November, 2023) Beyond boundaries: Navigating the art and ethics of hyper-reality design. Critical Augmented and Virtual Reality Researchers Network (CAVRN).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.