Viola’s Room: An Immersive Sensory Journey by Punchdrunk

Immersing in New Realities

Imagine stepping into a world where the boundaries between truth and fantasy blur, where every sight, sound and sensation is meticulously crafted to immerse you in a new reality. What was previously confined to your imagination transforms into a tangible world. These cutting-edge adventures are not only changing how we entertain ourselves but are revolutionising industries from education to healthcare, offering profound and transformative encounters that linger long after the experience is over. Welcome to the future of immersion, where every experience is not just seen, but lived.

Immersion is the ‘sensory and perceptual experience of being physically located in a […] simulated virtual environment’ (IEEE). There are two types of immersive experiences: one where you physically enter an environment and another where you explore a real or imagined world through a virtual reality (VR) headset. Once you enter the environment, either physically or virtually, all external cues are entirely blocked and eliminated, allowing for full and undivided engagement. The value of immersive technology lies in evoking strong emotions, enhancing engagement, and forming lasting brand and content connections. Let’s explore how immersive experiences engage the senses through the following case study.

Viola’s Room by Punchdrunk

Punchdrunk, a British company, has developed a form of immersive theatre that places the audience at the very heart of the action thus disrupting the theatrical norm and creating worlds where audiences can rediscover the childlike excitement of exploring the unknown.

The company’s latest production takes a departure from their usual format, offering a deeply intimate, audio-driven journey through a moonlit fever dream. The show introduces innovative ideas on engaging multiple senses and the roles they can play in immersion.

Upon arrival at Punchdrunk’s Woolwich headquarters, you are led through a dimly lit waiting room, designed to gently prepare you for the journey ahead. Groups of up to six receive simple instructions: stick together, follow the light and DO NOT go into the darkness. The thrill of anticipation heightens. You are then permitted into the entrance area, where you are handed a pair of headphones and instructed to remove your shoes and place them in the box along with your name tag. Yes, you go through the experience barefoot, which is a great place to talk about the multi-sensory experience you are about to embark on.

A dimly lit bedroom seen through a partially open door. The room features a vanity desk with a mirror and red string lights, a stool, and various personal items. The walls are covered with patterned wallpaper and decorated with posters.

Barefoot adventure

Out of Aristotle’s big five senses – hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting touch often overlooked in immersive settings, plays a crucial role. Touch can add a lot to the experience, that’s why the haptic gloves, that allow you to interact with 3D objects inside the virtual reality, are so effective. The participation of the whole body in exploring the immersive artistic experience can expand the possible sources of its meaning.

Punchdrunk goes one step further to activate your sense of touch. With your feet bare, you can feel distinct environments within Viola’s Room, which in turn, can reveal layers of the unspoken narrative to your body. Feet, closely tied to our memories and emotions, trigger strong sensations. Recall stepping on the pleasant dewy grass on early mornings or the warm beach sand. These memories evoke diverse emotions in participants when accessed by creators. Felix Barrett, the artistic director at Punchdrunk, explains that ‘touch is arguably the most pure and potent sense in [his] worlds.’

As you step into the first room of the experience, the soft, velvety texture of the carpet underfoot marks the beginning of your immersion. This initial space serves as the ‘ordinary world’, designed to make you feel comfortable and cosy. As you progress further and wander through the maze, the pathway becomes uneven and criss-crossed with roots tightening your sense of unease. At the climax of the show, your feet unexpectedly meet fresh sand, leaving you utterly bewildered.

The feeling of touch is not limited to your feet; your hands also encounter different textures. In each part of the experience the walls have a distinct surface that you will touch instinctively, feeling your way and steadying yourself.

A dimly lit, cozy bedroom with a young woman lying on a mattress on the floor. The room is decorated with patterned wallpaper, posters, and various personal items. A tent made of white fabric with colourful lights is set up in one corner. A desk with a mirror and red string lights is against a wall.

Activating Sight, Sound, and Smell

We are used to vision taking the lead in immersive experiences. Yet, here we are limited in our sight, deliberately. You will spend your time inside the experience in dim lighting or, at times, complete darkness. Lighting, masterfully executed by Simon Wilkinson, becomes a scarce resource. The light takes the role of our guide, and despite its occasional deception, we are bound to obey it. Like puppets in a tale, we give up control, trusting the light will lead us out of the nightmare.

Now, if touch communicates the emotional story beats and vision serves as our guide, what role does hearing play? Inside Viola’s Room, we are instructed to wear headphones and immerse ourselves in the tale narrated by Helena Bonham Carter’s disembodied voice. Initially, one might think the spoken narrative is crucial for context and substance. However, it proves confusing and hard to follow, frustrating those relying solely on it. The best approach is to engage all senses to grasp the essence of the show.

Here, hearing serves not to elucidate context but assumes a different role. In Viola’s Room, it evokes feelings of isolation, intimacy, and enchantment. The voice is there to entrance us. Isolated by the headphones from our fellow participants, anxious not to miss a single word, we forfeit our ability to speak. Going through the experience in solitude we deepen our connection with this world on an intimate level.

Finally, smell is a tricky sense to activate in immersion, yet it holds incredible power in delivering realism. In this show the attic has the distinct musty smell to it, that lingers on your clothes. The church smells like frankincense and myrrh. These aromas are subtle, leaving us unsure of their origin, but they are meticulously chosen to deliver the final dose of realism that completes our immersion.

Broad Impacts of Immersive Storytelling

Punchdrunk’s commitment to immersive storytelling shines through in Viola’s Room, offering a carefully planned experience. Each sense is assigned a role that contributes to the larger narrative. The audience is in awe from the moment they enter until they retrieve their shoes from a box labelled with their name. The experience invites personal interpretation, fostering a profound connection with the narrative that extends well beyond the performance.

Beyond mere entertainment, immersive technologies offer significant promise across diverse industries. In education, virtual simulations provide a safe and controlled environment for training, enhancing information retention. Healthcare professionals utilise VR for therapy and pain management, harnessing its immersive nature to encourage empathy and emotional connection, which are also valuable in marketing strategies.

On the whole, Punchdrunk’s approach serves as a good example of how businesses can creatively leverage immersive technology to enhance brand storytelling and customer engagement. By strategically utilising sensory stimulation, businesses can shape immersive experiences that create deeper connections with their audience. This approach not only captures attention but also cultivates lasting impressions that excels traditional marketing methods. Understanding how each sense can enhance the experience allows businesses to innovate and craft narratives that resonate deeply with their audience.

Contact us

Are you looking to create an innovative immersive technology project in virtual or augmented reality? Then feel free to drop us an email at, or give us a call on +44 (0)207 148 0526. We would be happy to help.

We also post industry related content to our LinkedIn company page, why not give us a follow?

Recent Posts