Amid the frenzy of Cannes Lions, Samsung has quietly partnered with theater company Punchdrunk International to present a virtual reality experience that is “immersive” in every sense.

Samsung has been heavily hyping its better-known forays into virtual reality this week in Cannes—for example, presenting a “VR Creators Experience” on the festival mainstage that showed versions of Gear VR projects adapted for the big screen.

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Maison Samsung

As with most discussions of virtual reality, there was talk of the medium being uniquely immersive. “I really believe that the combination of catharsis and VR, and the full immersion that VR creates, can expand our perception,” said Yelena Rachitsky, creative producer and head of education at Oculus Story Studio, in a characteristic comment.

But while frequently described as immersive, virtual reality is equally often criticized for being socially isolating. The newest “immersive” medium to emerge in recent years is the form of interactive theater pioneered by Punchdrunk, in which audience members wander around a stage set and occasionally interact with performers, guiding their own experience.

This made the partnership between Samsung and Punchdrunk particularly intriguing. How would these two vastly different companies resolve the conflict between Punchdrunk’s visceral brand of theater, which makes viewers feel more present in a space, with the sensory bubble created by products like Samsung’s Gear VR?

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After guiding me into a dimly-lit, carpeted room in an out-of-the-way corner of Maison Samsung, the brand’s temporary home in Cannes, a Punchdrunk performer made the answer clear. Putting on the Gear VR headset, I was not transported to a faraway land, but instead immersed in a virtual replica of the room I was already in. Performers then proceeded to deliver a monologue while touching and spinning my chair in sync with the ghostly images on the headset. Soon the image of the room morphed into something else entirely, and a performer removed my headset to reveal a shocking twist in the narrative, played out in the real world.

While most VR experiences involve an abrupt shift between the real and virtual worlds, the Samsung and Punchdrunk partnership used physical touch to maintain a connection to the real world throughout, while also leveraging moments of transition into and out of the VR headset to maximum dramatic effect. It’s a visceral reminder that in this new medium, creators are just scratching the surface of its possibilities.

For more on innovative approaches to creativity and VR, read our review of the Versions conference.

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