‘Life is experience, Story is structure’ Says Jan Pinkava, writer, and co-director of Pixar’s Ratatouille. The new world of theater is trying to merge immersive entertainment and narrative. What can we learn?

I read that we as a society are eager now than ever to isolate or ‘wall garden’ ourselves into engagements or entertainments, away from this madding World. You can blame this on extreme politics, divisive dialogues, unnatural enthusiasm to share or partake in disgust for the times we live in, on television and social media. It also helps that technology has moved on from that Pong game with two bars and a square bouncing across the screen to immersive games in VR headsets for your phone. The audience used to such reality demand autonomy – ‘can I experience it the way I want to?’. The immersive theater offers them just that.

Imagine a four-storied warehouse converted into a walk-in theater. You are deemed a ‘ghost’, wearing a mask and walking through rooms of action and narratives played out by actors. You can stop, open drawers, walk closer to read a paper in an actor’s hand or even be led by an actor into a special chamber. But you cannot talk or interact. This is what happens in ‘Sleep no more’ – a play(?) produced by Punchdrunk from the United Kingdom playing in New York now. Watch this promotional video.

Similarly, ‘Then she fell’ is an Alice in Wonderland based production that allows 15 people at a time to experience the rabbit-hole. This includes actual food (Eat me) and beverage (Drink me) experiences curated by chefs and sommeliers. Apparently minimizing the numbers in the audience improves intimacy and creates deeper experiences. While the analog makes it visceral and direct, VR can isolate users to bring in the intimacy needed for the experience. In fact, there are two Pixar alums working on a VR platform with conversational characters as you are reading this.

We designers can think about these immersive Worlds to sell or explain things, make our audence feel sad or happy, include touch, feel, and taste interactions as a part of interfaces to change the World if we can. I know production design friends who will be ecstatic if opportunities like this show-up.

I remember designing a citywide augmented reality treasure hunt for a mobile brand to launch a new phone. This is based on ‘markers’ that you discover, that tell you a story to find a clue to the next marker till you reach the launch store and win a phone. However, this was not intended to change the World.

Now that we have spoken about simulated environments, let me leave you with a parting thought from Elon Musk who insists that we are not living in a ‘base reality’. He thinks we are living a simulation to start with. Chew on this, till next time.