Less than two weeks after visiting The Pendulum, we found ourselves at another VR-augmented, immersive attraction. The similarities end with virtual reality though with Somnai being an, at times, indescribable but captivating experience.
Posing as a clinic that will help you engage with and control your dreams, Somnai promises to make you become everything that you wish you could be. The dream part of this is key. Once we are ‘processed’ and have put on the issued robes and socks, we enter the experience. From there, things take a very surreal turn. Throughout our time in Somnai, we kept recalling ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – this didn’t feel like a sleep clinic anymore than the chocolate factory resembled a working mill in that story. The opening scene required a bit of reprogramming on our part, the sterile white walls of the introductory area gave way to what can best be described as a temple. From then on, the locales kept shifting unpredictably in a very dreamlike fashion.
In that first space, we were greeted by our guide who asked some grandiose questions (but, thankfully, not too many) before leading us throughout the rest of the presentation. This character (I don’t believe we ever got her name) pulled the show together for us – she was constantly switching between being oddly monotone and then warm but distant. We couldn’t get a real read on her which added so much to the imagery and activities that we were partaking in.
The acting here was fantastic; there was one moment during the show where something occurred that caused the character some annoyance. But creepily, she held it back, leaving us wondering if she was angry at the group, making everyone slightly wary of her. This worked way better than someone just shouting in your face as these sorts of event are wont to do. The layers and the subtleties of her performance complemented the other-worldliness of the show brilliantly. We doubt that this would have worked if we’d been guided through the event with someone adopting a more sterile, professional manner – it would have cut right through the hypnagogic atmosphere of the show.
Another stunning element of Somnai was the set design. The total space felt massive and every inch was impressively designed, including even the transitioning hallways. Nothing within Somnai appeared as an afterthought and it was a joy to just linger within its four walls. Our only slight negative as far as the theming went is that the places that looked the most impressive seemed to be those that we spent the least amount of time in. A minor niggle in the scheme of things. We just wanted to idle in each set for as long as we possibly could!
That said, there were two things that didn’t quite gel for us. The first being that, in the early scenes of the production, they attempted to inject an actual narrative into proceedings. If it was intended to be the spine of the show, it didn’t quite work for us as it was a bit scattershot and reappeared at random junctures as though the show itself suddenly remembered that it had a story to tell. It could’ve been dropped completely and nothing would really change. For us, it just ended up being an anchor that dragged us back into a conventional experience when we were so absorbed by the abstract nature of it all. The fewer things weighing it down, the better in our eyes.
And then there’s the VR. Look, it performed well for what it was doing but the ‘real’ aspects at play were strong enough that it didn’t need the crutch of the technology. It was great to sell the point of being able to live outside normal physical constraints but it created a very clear segregation between what was real and what wasn’t.
However, there was one inspired concept in the VR moments and it should’ve been played up more than it was. There’s a ‘free-roaming’ VR section where you get to explore alien worlds. This expedition is tactile, things that you can see in the virtual world are physically there. Strange plants can be touched and the floor beneath your feet changes depending on where you are. The transition between each world required a leap of faith. You really had to trust your guide when she told you to step through into the next world. This was because the divide between one world and the next was intimidating, to say the least! It didn’t feel at all safe to be making a further step! Placing your faith in this person who we didn’t have full confidence in was something that should’ve been more of a focus throughout the show.
After you exit the experience, you’re dropped into a bar that is very much on-theme with the event. The place looked amazing and the drinks were so intriguing that we spent way longer in here than we’d planned! And they’ve made an earnest attempt to extend the show beyond the production with the introduction of an app. In theory, this is a great idea but in practical terms, it failed quite epically on a few fronts.
There are three key parts to the app; a heart monitor, an AR scanner and a 3D image of yourself. Before you enter Somnai, you are scanned in 360 degrees. The resulting 3D image becomes available to you in the app when you enter in your patient ID. Whilst looking cool and actually being finished to a very high quality, it’s pretty pointless. We expected that we’d see ourselves in the virtual world at some point. If you’ve been through Somnai, how cool would it be to see yourself in that final scene?
The heart monitor didn’t really go anywhere. We learned later that they were giving guests Fitbits during processing, something that we weren’t provided. The AR camera was neat, you’d take pictures of the many cocktails on offer and it would augment the image with all manner of oddities. However, taking the picture didn’t save it so we don’t have any cool images to show off!
That said, the idea behind the app is a brilliant one but the implementation needs to be better considered. As it was, all we had was a rotatable 3D image of ourselves. Even then, one of ours didn’t work! Whilst we had no issue with the VR, this is why some are still wary of technology in events. If it works, fantastic but if it doesn’t, we’re left with nothing but the promises of what could’ve been.
The app, however, was a free addition and wasn’t part of the show so it doesn’t affect our review. We just felt it was worth pointing out that sometimes ambition can get the better of events.
Simply put, we loved Somnai. This is an immersive experience that is all about the aesthetic. The marketing made some bold gestures about improving your self-confidence, and whilst it’s there in the background, don’t go into this expecting a deep reflection on existence. Go for the promise of spending an hour and a half in a waking dream, escapism of the highest order.
Somnai (2018) - dotdotdot
+ The aesthetic
+ Performance and character of our guide
+ Relative lack of structure
- The shoehorning of a story at certain junctures
What can we say? It might not be for everyone but we enjoyed every single second in Somnai. It's an experience like few others out there and we just want to go back!
Ticket Price: £53
Address: 2 Pear Street, London EC1V 3SB