Grab Somnai By The Horns

Last week a few St Lukers eagerly attended Somani – a new virtual reality production that the Huffington Post called “One of the most anticipated events of the year. The experience, created by Dotdotdot, invites people to learn the art of lucid dreaming, using technology and multi-sensory elements that ‘may cause acute death’.

Having not had the best track record with immersive experiences, I have to admit I felt slightly apprehensive. After attending a few similar events, I’ve realised there are a couple of barriers that just stop me engaging with or ‘experiencing’ the productions fully.

First is confidence. In general, I’m pretty extroverted. But put me in an interactive, immersive theatre experience like Alice in Wonderland Underground at Waterloo Vaults, or Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future and I get deeply shy. The thought of playing a character terrifies me and makes me feel incredibly self-conscious.

The second is the level of concentration needed. VR experiences where every sense is immersed and you’re only in the experience for a short amount of time are fine. But add a story and different scenarios with instructions (like in You, me Bum Bum Train) and the narrative starts to get lost on me. I lose any sense of what I should be doing and get confused, and as a result lose the feeling of immersion.

But despite all this, I was still keen to try Somnai out (especially with such glowing reviews).

Upon arrival the building itself was unassuming – deliberately giving nothing away in the waiting area. As soon as we sat down, my geeky self took over and I immediately downloaded the Somnai app, looking for any clues on what we might be doing or what we should scan. Even before everything kicked off properly, I felt like the whole thing had real promise.

I won’t spoil the experience by giving full details, but I can tell you the premise of the production. You’re a patient of ‘The Somnai Sleep Institution and are given an appointment with five other strangers. You’re all de-robed and changed into dressing gowns, given bed socks and what appears to be a ‘Fitbit’, and then set off.

I had no idea what to expect for the next hour. But for a full 60 minutes we were led on an incredible journey.

The technology was out of this world. Think psychedelic imagery accompanied by real-life sensations like wind, smell, and touch. But the real impact came from the interplay of virtual reality and the more traditional use of theatre and performance. Over the course of the hour, actors startled us, guided us, and manoeuvred us through unnerving sets.

The use of the ‘Fitbit’ was a nice touch (although the 3D scan didn’t happen in our group – perhaps they decided it wasn’t worth doing as the weeks went by).  The heart rate visualiser was particularly interesting. At one point my heart rate (worryingly) increased to 115 bpm (although this might have been due to a feeling of nervousness and lack of confidence rather than an adrenaline rush). Whatever the reason, it was definitely a talking point at the end as we relaxed in the interactive bar, where the drink of our choice was brought to life by AR.

But despite all the fantastic technology, I remained disconnected from the story itself. I was so wrapped up in what was around me, stepping off cliffs and into cosmic worlds, that I became distracted from what part of the story I was in and what I was supposed to be doing. The actors’ delivery made me daze in and out of the narrative, to the point that I found myself in a room with my MD having been separated from the rest of the group. We walked around aimlessly, as a result missing a key part of the narrative – all because of the effects we had been immersed in not 10 minutes before.

Overall though, I’m glad we took part in this ambitious experience. The creators took a risk, and it paid off. They set out to create an immersive experience like nothing before, and in many ways, they achieved it. They managed to solve one of my two key issues with these experiences (the need for confidence) and now just need to make the narrative stand out a little more. If they overcome this second hurdle, Dotdotdot could definitely come to rival Punch-Drunk productions.

Virtual Reality is now becoming commonplace and mixing it with immersive real-life theatre experience is only going to become more popular. What seems to be tricky is delivering the technology whilst grounding it in a brand narrative. I spend a lot of time looking at innovative ways of using technology such as VR, so I had high expectations for the event. But in this case the use of technology created a confusing rather than smooth experience (although it was certainly memorable)

There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here. For brands who are looking to use VR to create scenarios for consumers, let this be a word of warning: don’t use tech for tech’s sake. This goes not just for VR, but for all technology that’s coming into popular usage. There needs to be a meaningful way to buy into the brand and tell a story that connects with the audience emotionally. Tech is not enough on its own.

St Luke’s rating: 6/10. Worth the money for the VR experience, but a shame that the story got lost along the way.

Nikki Wilkinson, Director of Digital Strategy

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