Conceptual User experience

On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling

If you’ve run into me in New York City since I moved here six months ago I’ve probably badgered you about Sleep No More.

It was something I saw in my first weeks after moving here after two aborted attempts on previous trips to New York. Best described as an immersive theatrical experience, it has deeply affected the way I think about theatre, theme parks, exhibitions and museum experiences in general. And, coupled with my experiences at the Museum of Old & New Art before I left Australia, it has challenged my thinking around ‘participation’ and ‘openness’.

Loosely based on Macbeth, inspired by film noir, and transforming 100,000 square feet of a 5 storey warehouse in Chelsea, Sleep No More is about immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative. Everything is touchable, openable, operable. It is a world of cinematic detail – shelves, drawers and cabinets are full of papers and objects that are purposefully selected and layered with information from and about the story world – and sound and smell are turned up to 11. With the audience masked, silent, and anonymised, the experience becomes highly individualised and for three hours you explore, following performers if they take your fancy, or chancing upon happenings and scenes.

Apart from the choreography of the performers themselves, there is a sense of the audience being choreographed as they spread out and move loosely through the space, yet always managed to be ‘nudged’ subtly to climactic moments in the larger congregational spaces. Friends have remarked how game-like it is in the way it does this nudging – and on my first viewing I made connections to the ways in which good 3D sandbox games manage to maintain a core narrative whilst encouraging players to ‘freely explore’.

Despite this subtle nudging your experience will be different to mine. Couples are advised to purposefully split up for the duration of the adventure to have a more individualised experience (and a lot more to talk about afterwards).

If you haven’t been and you are visiting New York in the next little while, then I do urge you to go. And try not to read to much about it beforehand.

So tonight at Storycode – a periodic transmedia & storytelling meetup – I was excited to hear Pete Higgin and Colin Nightingale from Punchdrunk talk about the development of Sleep No More in its current incarnation and their approach to storytelling. (You can watch the video of the whole talk on Livestream).

Punchdrunk have been working with MIT Media Lab to explore ways in which a complementary experience of the environment could work online. Last week, in some trials, several audience members were selected to wear special masks with sensors and cameras and joined their fellow patrons in the regular Sleep No More performance. Connected to them were selected online participants who experienced a version of the performance through an interface that recalled the classic text adventure, but with ambient sound and some intermittent vision.

The selected audience members were drawn to specific parts of the set where a communications portal between the online and onsite opened so that they could communicate with each other – mediated by actors in a control room. This is going on in realtime in the same physical environment as the regular performance – so it is a strange kind of ‘third story’ in the same world. These ‘portals’ were subtly disguised in the fabric of the set so as to be unnoticeable by others.

Obviously there were some issues – the additional layers of the 3rd story secret world were not obvious – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the locational technology (Bluetooth) and content delivery/transmission over wifi didn;t always work satisfactorily. There’s a New York Times piece on the experiment from the point of view of an participant that is worth a read.

What really impressed me was the deep consideration that had gone into making the online experience for the remote participant as immersive as possible by using sound and the limitations of text descriptors rather than relying on inadequate video or worse, the uncanny valley of 3D simulations.

The online experience wasn’t meant to be a ‘replica’ of the Sleep No More experience, but a parallel to it.

This parallelism is something I’d love to see museums do more with. Online/digital as a parallel experience. This is what so much discussion in the museum (Rodley) blogosphere (Cairns) has recently been about.

Take a look at Punchdrunk’s recent outreach and literacy program ‘Under The Eiderdown’.

Hit play. Watch the seven minutes. Then come back. It is worth it.


Towards the close of their talk Pete Higgin had a nice line – “explanation is the killer of wonderment”.

It reminded me of a recent article from Salon on the effect of YouTube on the traditions and social practices of magicians.

“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” [magician Jamy Ian Swiss] said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your couch and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”

Magic, like theatre, isn’t about the technicalities of the tricks – it is about performance and the moment.

Higgin told an anecdote about a run-in with a overzealous ‘fan’ who had created an article deconstructing the timings of scenes in Sleep No More – under the strange assumption that by giving the ‘factual information’ would actually be useful. It is a tension that plays out in all media now – the plot summaries and spoilers that are immediately posted to Wikipedia for popular TV series after an episode airs – but for immersive, purposefully opaque narrative experiences the stakes might just be higher.

Museums, especially those of the scientific and historical persuasion, have been hesitant to embrace theatricality – “there be charlatans”, or worse “there be theme parks” – yet all good storytelling is all about performance. (Something public librarians at Reading Time know all too well).

Yet consider the mass popularity of the early commercial museums in the late 19th century when scientific phenomena were akin to magic and Coney Island had premature babies in cribs showing the ‘miracles of modern medicine’ and freak shows, and electricity! Wonderment!

These are not things we generally think of as desirable in a modern museum – however there may still be much to learn about their appeal that still applies today.

What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all? (The Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is wonderfully designed with some spaces and passages that are only accessible by small children that lead to experiences that only children can have separate from their parents.)

What if we made ‘wonderment’ our Key Performance Indicator?

23 replies on “On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling”

“What if we made ‘wonderment’ our Key Performance Indicator?”
Back to our roots! considering the birth place of museums was the “wunderkammer” or “cabinet of curiosity”.

I totally agree, i think this aspect of museums was lost along the way and we need to find it again.

One of the thoughts that stayed with me after experiencing Sleep no more (the Escher of theatre production) was that I was responsible for my own journey, guided by clues and the opportunity to follow actors, but that it was ultimately my choice of what I experienced.  This resonated with me and I would love to experience this in a Museum which at first seems a total shift in exhibition design but one that could definitely be experimented with.

The whole free-choice learning thing is really the norm of museum thinking AND the audience research field is full of papers about how visitors *actually* navigate exhibitions that it strikes me as very odd that exhibition design hasn’t gone much further down this path.

I saw it when it was in Boston in 2009 and it really stuck with me ever since as a true transformative experience. Shortly after leaving the show, I concluded that I wanted all museum experiences to be like it. 

Wonderment leads to discovery which leads to knowledge. That in my mind is a great reason to make it an indicator. A big hurdle will be breaking people of the notion that wonderment somehow equates to freak show, spectacle, or that we will have to dumb down scholarly objectives.

My wife has a background and exhibition design and that is what initially drew her to SNM as well.

You need to develop a Wondermeter, because surely filling out a survey about it will sap wonderment before you can measure it. Failing that, you’ll need to design a very clever study in order for wonderment to become a performance metric.

I think the wundermeter (you have to say it in a vague European accent) wouldnt be that hard! Something that scanned your face to see how much your eyes opened in surprise or mouth dropped in awe.

Here’s how to make it.

First we need to differentiate between Wi and Wp. That’s Wunder Immediate and Wunder Prolonged. On the other axis there is Wv or the Wunder Velocity.

Measuring Wi is easy.

Set up a motion sensitive camera to take photos of visitors as they approach the object or display in question. You could probably even do this with a Kinect, much like in this example of a fridge that scans customers as they pick out items.

Make sure there are at least three photographs, timestamped, of each visitor. As they approach, when they are looking, and the a second or two after they’ve looked. 

Run the photographs through open source face recognition tools to determine the change in facial expression.

The amount of change in facial expression is your Wi. The speed of change is Wv.

Measuring Wp is harder.

Fortunately your visitors are probably avid users of social media and they will be ‘talking’ about their wonderment with their friends after the visit. There’s plenty of tools to track this, unfortunately none of them are very good right now, so maybe just make up some numbers for this one.

(I now fully expect some museum with an ‘innovation lab’, some interactive artist/student or, worse, a ‘creative agency’ to go and make one now.)

Musing or only (a) musing

Museums retain
their historical imprints including the cabinets of curiosities,
so wonder has always been
part of their fire power. The interesting question has been is wonder enough? Should
curiosity only
be used as the precursor of learning, an interpretative entrapment for
new concepts and detailed information-basically the museums message? It has
been the lofty ideals  that has separated us from the wolves of
commerce aka theme parks and leisure centres. This question has always bitten
deep into a museum purpose and I’m not sure whether it is still significant or
just an old chestnut.


Wonder and curiosity has been enough
for me and my work in family programming with the justification that we were
building a pedagogic bridge to the collection. Whilst possibly self-serving it certainly
satisfied. And these days I wonder whether wonder can be justified on the basis
of short supply…


On another note I was interested
in the company’s school literacy program and the Principal’s support of it as
it prompted reading, writing and listening. Translated into a Museum context
the entire experience, visuals, objects, actors and spaces could be seen as a
literacy event and another justification for the wonder factor.

Melbourne’s Arena Theatre is developing The House of Dreaming as
an interactive installation for 5-8 year-olds, structured around the narrative
of a child’s dream. Children enter into a surreal three-dimensional storybook
and interact with a range of characters, including video representations of
themselves. The work is being developed with the direct, ongoing involvement of

Yes, yes! It’s good to read this, Seb. I loved the sound of SNM when I read Paula’s post on it a while back; that Weevils’ shop experience is a great complement. We should also reference the Museum of Jurassic Technology ( here, which has been working with wonderment and withholding the facts for a long time now.

I’m also keen to know if anyone has applied the idea of subtle mobs ( to museum spaces. I have plans on that front :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *