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The best VR I experienced all year had no tech at all

Sometimes the best virtual experiences are real. Why a piece of immersive theater blew me away more than anything I've tried that fits over my face.

I'm in a waiting room. A nurse with a sign-in sheet awaits me. On the table are a series of small vials. "Elixir," I'm told. I drink one.

I'm given a set of two keys, on a rope bracelet. I'm allowed to use these to open whatever I might find. But I'm instructed to not open any doors unless told.

With that, I begin.

I lost track of time in the rooms I explored. Things happened to me, around me. I observed people from hidden areas. I opened secret boxes and found hidden messages. I painted roses in a tiny room with a stranger.

But I wasn't playing a new survival horror game on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. I was attending a performance of "Then She Fell," an immersive theater production in a nondescript red brick building in a forgotten-feeling part of Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Produced by Third Rail Projects, this show has been running for years. But to me, it felt newer and fresher than any of the most cutting-edge VR experiences I've tried in 2016. It was visceral. It was intimate. It was unsettling. And even though I had no headset on, and used no controllers, I felt transported somewhere else.

Immersive theater, a genre of live performance that's started spreading, has many forms. But in none of them do you sit in the audience and passively watch a play on stage -- you participate in the presentation. It's been my obsession lately, and I've been trying to see as many as I can. It becomes addictive. Some are site-specific and freely exploratory, like the epic "Sleep No More." I spent three hours in that experience several years ago. I could go anywhere, but, I often felt alone. After all, I had to wear a mask. In "Then She Fell," I had no mask. I could see everyone, and everyone could see me. And while everything during "Sleep No More" is silent -- and for the most part, so was "Then She Fell" -- sometimes, rarely, I was asked to speak.

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Where it happens.

Scott Stein/CNET

Immersion meets intimacy, with all my senses

A starting group of 15 was quickly split up -- sometimes in groups of three, four or five, other times just two. Or, just myself. Gentle taps, little indicators, more profound than any haptics I'd wear in VR. I found myself guided to places, into chambers, hidden spaces. Different perspectives. I found myself inside a narrow confessional booth, looking through a one-way mirror at another room where someone held a mirror for a woman who was meant to be the Red Queen.

"Then She Fell" is loosely based on "Alice in Wonderland." But it also reflects on Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka, Lewis Carroll) and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Alice in "Alice in Wonderland." The whole experience is set in a sanitarium. And, perhaps, other places. From there, I'd rather be vague. My experience won't be your experience. And even communicating it here isn't the same thing.

I was asked to lie in a bed, alongside someone else with me. The White Queen knelt beside me, telling us a bedtime story. The lights dim, secrets on the walls.

Under the stairs, I waited while a door opened up. And someone taking a bath looked at me through the mirror's reflection. Then, she closed the door...but asked me to hand her things through the narrow crack still left her world and mine. She asked about my love life. I nervously responded. In VR, you just watch and listen...and don't get to speak. She could hear me. This was, obviously, real. But all the pieces around me felt alien, symbolic.

I could do things beyond just seeing, or hearing. I could walk, and touch. Explore. Sometimes there were smells, of the paint I was applying to a rose or the mustiness of a darkened room. Tasting, too. I was given a grape to eat, in a lair of the White Queen, surrounded by what I remember to be seashells, feathers, old trinkets. I drank tea, nervously, at a mad tea party where I had to keep shifting seats. Sometimes my body felt uncomfortable from standing, or the room's humidity became stifling. The point is, rooms had presence. Yes, that's because they were real. But the details also made me feel, increasingly, like I was somewhere half-real.

The inescapable magic of presence, and empathy

Sometimes a performer would approach me, look me in the eyes. Just me. Uncomfortably close. And, ask me something. Or, give me an object. A task. I tried my best not to laugh, or feel uncomfortable. I usually complied, quiet as the well-trained VR demo recipient I've become. But when someone's eyes look right at you, it's jarring. Hold the contact for more than ten seconds, and it feels like something infinite is being shared.

The few scenes where I shared some moment with another character still linger in my mind. Did we bond? Does the actor even remember me? It's too close, too real.

A virtual character, or even a video of someone real, could try to approach that same sense of intimacy and presence. I've seen it in everything from documentaries like "Clouds Over Sidra" to Naughty America's VR pornography. VR can create those feelings, even empathy. But it's even more of a simulation. VR can't read your actual eyes -- yet.

Virtual reality still has its limits

I walked through the closest thing to a fully-immersive VR world just a few weeks ago: "Ghostbusters Dimensions," created by The Void. I wore a backpack computer, and full-body headset and haptic suit. I carried my proton pack rifle through rooms I walked through with two others. We saw ghosts together. We destroyed things. I opened doors, which were actual doors in the real world. I moved through virtual rooms that mapped onto real rooms: when I got to a wall, I reached out and felt a wall. I crossed a catwalk that really rumbled. Ghosts "moved" through me by rumbling my chest haptics. I even smelled things that connected to the experience.

But The Void's experience was only 10 minutes long, and the backpack computers can only last 40 minutes at a clip. "Then She Fell" lasted two hours.

In The Void, the headsets felt uncomfortable. I couldn't see the real faces of anyone, and no one got to see the emotions on my face. And my hands didn't really move, just my weapon. But it's a start toward bridging between what can happen in VR and what can happen in reality.

In my immersive theater journey, I had no equipment. My phone and watch were turned off. I was disconnected; it was just me and this timeless world. And that made it feel all the more magical.

Our five senses are still infinitely more subtle than what VR can take advantage of. What I can sense by feel, or what I can see in a barely-lit room. The way I hear something so slightly, so softly, from a doorway. In the hands of experts, it can beat any other experience. But, it's also expensive and hard to get to. And good theater can't be saved. It's here, and it's gone.

VR can reach a lot more people. And it might get to this level of nuance, someday. The best I've seen comes close. VR, after all, excels in feelings of immersive isolation. But if you have the chance, and want to really see the best virtual experience possible right now...go to a top-notch immersive theater event.

It might be the best indicator of where VR will try to go next.

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