Experience an Alternate Reality Without a Headset (or Drugs)

'ROOM' explores virtual reality and collective daydreaming with just a blindfold and multiple imaginations.

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Aug 8 2014, 9:00am

What if virtual reality didn't require a headset? What if the user, sitting in something like a sense deprivation space minus all the saltwater, could build multiple realities with nothing but their own imagination and the help of some improvisational narrative guides? 

This is what the troupe of narrators behind ROOM, an interactive storytelling experience, are doing at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Over the course of 25 days in August, the troupe will lead 250 blindfolded "players" into a room, where with a combination of sound design and their voices they will construct a vast number of alternate realities. Think of it as 25 minutes of virtual reality without a headset. 

One of the game's narrators, writer and director Alan Fielden, said the first version of ROOM was meticulously planned. But, its current iteration, which is more free form, bears little resemblance to its original incarnation.

"The scenario was always the same: a room you had to escape from," Fielden said. "We had descriptions of every object in the room written on real paper. We'd tried to anticipate every possibility, and it was mad and noisy. The first evolution involved replacing planning with improvisation. That was the true beginning."

Room Portrait #1 with Ross Sutherland at the Southbank Centre Library. Image: ROOM

This was the iteration of ROOM  I recently experienced at the Pleasance Theatre in London. A "game" of infinite virtual possibility.

For me, it was as if the phosphenes dancing on the back of my eyelids were the quantum particles and waves of light thrown out onto the cinema screen of my mind. There was a thrill to it all, but also some trepidation, as if the narrators might not be up to the task. But, they were.

Building my virtual realities out of a piece of experimental science fiction I'd just begun writing, the narrators sent me hurtling into vast stretches of time and space. All of it by turns intricately and absurdly crafted. It was the first time the troupe experimented with an existing text. And it came as a total surprise to me and two of ROOM's narrators, who had to adjust to this curveball on the fly. 

My ROOM experience started, not unlike a doctor's visit, the moment a narrator invited me inside. Once in their domain, I was handed a blindfold. After placing it around my head, the narrator led me by hand through a doorway, up a set of stairs, through another doorway and finally into a space whose dimensions I could not imagine. I then was directed to sit down on a chair. 

"Welcome to ROOM," I heard. "ROOM is a game. It's a story that we tell together. There are just a few things that we ask of you. One is that you remain blindfolded. Two is that you remain seated throughout."

"Now the way that it works is that we will begin by describing a scenario, and from there you can jump in at any point you like. There are no right or wrong ways of playing. The more adventurous you are, the more adventurous we will be."

"Are you ready?" I was asked.

"Yes," I said.

Cue rhythmic ambient electronic music. A voice, another narrator, came out of the void speaking the words from my text.

The short story follows a disembodied entity as it travels through data, time, and space. The game opened with the first part of the text. Set against the rhythmic ambient electronic music, it came vividly to life. In ROOM, the story underwent mutation and filtration via three different narrators and me, the player, who quickly fell into a meditative state produced by the game's visual and spatial sense deprivation. 

In the narration, I'd performed some experiment that made me pure data. To whom I was sending transmissions, I do not know.

Now: twenty-four miles from Earth. Was it some hot air balloon come untethered in a dream? Or my consciousness breaking the confines of my skull? This body: disintegrated, reformed in a stream of luminous data now visible from the arc between air and void. A new topography laying its lattices down upon the world, where once only planes, ships and trains traced their patterns. Now: weightless, invisible matrices bury the ancients who lie in repose. 

Entombed on this rock, this ship, I can see their ghosts alive in the machines. And I've weaved myself through their chrysalises, avatars of old, softened by the crush of gravity. And, yes, I've electrified the recently perished. Replayed their dreams. A rewind here, a fast-forward there. Hung on the final pause before they slipped. All at once, no blurring of the images, the sounds, the sensations.

The circuit boards of life. They, too, have their memories.

In my fiction, the narrating entity can travel anywhere. Its description of events and such should be understood as completely non-linear. And, for all intents and purposes, there isn't a story. Not as such. But the ROOM crew fashioned a branching set of narratives out of it. A fluid and epic series of virtual realities.

"The experiment was a success," I heard someone say, the narrator of my own consciousness. "I'm losing proof of it. The lines are blurred now. I look up at the sky and send transmissions. I've become the data. I am the data: swirling, moving, surrounding, taking me beyond the net to other worlds."

I would later flash back to this moment when Fieldan described ROOM as variously "real virtual reality" (or "real reality"), a "brain bath," an "imagination workout," a "dream jam," or "lucid scheming." 

The ROOM experience doesn't require drugs or dioramas to simulate realities.

There is the sensation of bathing in a type of strange collective dream. A good analogue would be the Philip K. Dick novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in which Mars colonists use Perky Pat Layouts (scaled models) and the psychedelic drug CAN-D to achieve a simulated and shared alternate or virtual reality. The big difference is that the ROOM experience doesn't require drugs or dioramas to simulate realities. Multiple sets of imaginations do the heavy lifting, and all quite effortlessly. 

The narrators' task is "to figure out, ideally in the space of the first five minutes, if the player is visual-minded, or sonically minded, a feeler or a thinker, into details or the bigger picture, surreal or naturalistic, interested in socializing or being solitary, etc," Fieldan explained.

Those first few moments are critical, and my experience was no different. Though I hadn't imagined a spaceship in my story, in ROOM some sort of interstellar vessel serves as my base, and it really pulled me into this shared reality. The ship served as a place to take on various physical forms, but also became another room where this disembodied entity of pure data had to return. As a means of pushing me from one narrative to the next, I have an energy pack, which has to be re-charged at intervals. And so this boundless entity was, as in the early iterations of ROOM, trapped in a room.

Entering this virtual world, the influence of cinema was immediate and profound. Sophie Grodin, a London-based performance artist, would later confirm cinema's outsized influence on ROOM. Perhaps this has something to do with the cinematic programming that we all absorb from a young age. A visual language that predominates, and one that we cannot easily discard. 

At any rate, from here on out, the narrators and I could zoom in, focus on objects, see any object from multiple perspectives, flash forward, put things into slow-motion, and time travel. Though I could rewind the story, it was a power that I for whatever reason chose not to exploit.  

ROOM player at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014. Image: ROOM

In my story, the narrator, as in Maldoror, is a shape-shifter. In ROOM, this shape-shifting is accomplished with the help of some advanced technology involving crystals that constantly explode and reform in various configurations.

After taking some sort of form and charging my energy pack,  I descend to the Earth and walk on its surface. There are birds and trees, all fake. I see Earth as a barren wasteland. I send my consciousness upward in a burst of crystals that have become like a near limitless set of eyes. As the crystal shards hang in the air, I ask to be jettisoned to the end of the universe. To the singularity. 

You've reached the singularity, what would you like to do now?

The troupe oblige. They send me hurtling toward the singularity, which appeared as a wall that I hit Looney Tunes-style and slid down. A female voice said, in a moment that wouldn't have been out of place in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, "You've reached the singularity, what would you like to do now?"

"I want to be crushed and come out the other side," I said. 

"Very well," the voice said. 

The wall crashed down on me. Once again I found myself disintegrated before being squeezed out the other side in the womb of a newly formed universe. In my mind, it seemed rather like one universe was shitting out another universe through a digestive black hole. The visual made me chuckle. But, despite the comedy of it, it was incredibly vivid.

"You loop around the top and see the universe from all angles," the voice said. "You see planets and stars that are billions of lights years apart, and you come together and disperse again in every shape imaginable. You ripple like a wave upon the planes of existence. You see stars exploding, giving birth. The sun becomes a woman in labor. She gives birth to planets. Hospital beds, machinery, blood, fire."

(All of this, by the way, is being soundtracked by epic, M83-style ambient drone music.)

"You form into one big crystal and you start to fall down toward a green and blue planet," the voice continued. "And you fall and fall through several different atmospheres, through clouds, through gas, through blue skies, through tree tops, down, and you land, and you look around you, and there are children staring at you."

What's interesting about this bit, apart from the children staring Aphex Twin-style at me for no reason, is that the sensation of falling was convincing. Sure, in reality, I was sat on a chair like a working stiff, but I'd lost contact with my physical body. In place of it, a virtual body reigned. An invisible simulacra had, in that moment of falling down, taken its place, and it had some weight to it. As I felt this new body, I intuited that the gravity on this planet must be different, so my body felt lighter as it fell through the sky.

"What would you like to do now?" I was asked.

I asked to go down into this new Earth's core and see if there was a civilization down below. And so I drilled myself into the bottom of the planet, and encounter an overwhelmingly bright light: a sun inside the planet. My face sweats and the skin starts to peel back. 

At this point, another narrator suggested that some part of me is missing. Not anything essential or integral. A heat shield. I activated it. I watched the elements of the hollow planet churning before flying around the micro sun. I'm told that all of it is too abstract, and indeed I cannot make sense of what his happening. But, the narrators' words provide the images for what must be a mind experiencing fragmentation. 

I see dinosaurs, Romans, Greeks, a woman holding a baby, Alpha Centauri, a teacher standing at a chalkboard, children playing, London, grass, a dog chasing a ball, shadows, a milkshake, a man jumping in front of a train, children, Africa, a post office queue, love, cheeseburgers, Coca-Cola, concrete, and fights. Just words, of course. But, as they invade your consciousness like William S. Burrough's idea of "word virus," flickering bursts of light depicting the scenes puncture the void of your mind. The words are producing images that become your reality.

I then chose to come out of the Earth's core and transform into a sperm whale. This scene began when a cord dropped down in front of me. I grabbed it and was pulled up into the clouds. I dangled over a vast navy blue ocean. I let go of the cord and burst into a "billion crystals," then crashed into the ocean, where I was gradually reassembled into a sperm whale. 

"It's as if you're whole body is a giant bus," a narrator said, while another makes the noise of a whale, as Orozco cued oceanic sounds. The whale calls, improvised by Jeffries and Stapleton-Crittenden, temporarily brought me out of the experience. I wanted to laugh. Not because they couldn't approximate the calls, but because they'd tried with more than a little bit of cheekiness. A reminder that this is, after all, just a game. 

ROOM player flanked by narrators Annabelle Stapleton-Crittenden (left) and Malachy Orozco (right) at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Image: ROOM

Once more I found myself aboard the space ship, where pixels swirled in various formations on a screen. Eventually these pixels spelled out, "Thank you for playing ROOM," which each of the narrators utter as I removed my blindfold, whereupon I found the three of them staring at me in a completely ordinary room. And by ordinary I mean that it was a boring come-down to the past 25 minutes of collective hallucinatory storytelling and world-building. 

In that moment, I was also curious about how the narrators felt after the blindfold came off. Feeling a bit discombobulated, like I was coming out of a dream in slow-motion, I forgot to ask them. I later posed the question to the group, and Grodin responded with a sense of amazement.

"I can't even count the number of amount of times when you just sit back, and look at this person in wonder," Grodin said. "And the amount of times where the player takes off their blindfold and are in awe of what they just did are also many."

"Many people don't think that they have it 'in them' or that they have a 'good' imagination," she added. "They think it has somehow disappeared, and the moment they open their mouths for the first time they completely surprise themselves. That is wonderful."

I never doubted my imagination, but I can say that I experienced something breathtaking and very original. Emerging from ROOM was a bit like coming out of some strange, verbal virus-induced amniotic fluid. A cosmic rebirth of sorts. Psychedelic even. A very virtual reality indeed.