Review of “Sensory Odyssey: Into the Heart of our Living World” by ArtScience Museum

Greetings, Living Theorists! This is Jedi – Design and Content Lead. This week, instead of reviewing a game, I will be reviewing a different kind of experience: the Sensory Odyssey, which is currently running at the ArtScience Museum from now till 29 Oct, 2023. As an experience designer, I get my inspiration from multiple mediums of engagement and entertainment – and in my opinion, the Sensory Odyssey is at the forefront of immersive experiences out there. Be warned of spoilers ahead, in case you wanted to go into the experience blind.

When we think of the term immersive experiences, we think of technology related to Experience Reality (Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality). In recent times, there has been an uptick of exploration in these spaces commercially and artistically, but they have notably missed out one of the senses of the human body: smell. That is one of the key defining feature that sets Sensory Odyssey apart from other immersive experiences.

Sensory Odyssey has the visitor walk through a series of spaces, each setup to best allow various visual sequences of animals to shine. For example, the first segment, Savannah Night, showcased African Wildlife at night. It was so dark that it was hard to see beyond your hands, but along the circular perimeters of the room were dark curtains that had projections of white effervescent outlines of various animals fading in and out, as if you were experiencing the perspective of a wild animal in a savannah. The surrounding soundscape had an ASMR quality to it, bringing in various related animal and nighttime sounds. And the extra dimension which we mentioned – smell, had musky notes of the wild animals (similar to what you might smell at a farm). It wasn’t off putting or fragrant, rather it felt appropriate and immersive given the context of what you were seeing.

This was not the first time the sense of smell was explored – Teamlab had explored this at the National Museum of Singapore Rotunda’s Story of the Forest. Theirs had projections of falling flora from the sky, and so you could smell strong wafts of flowering scents when you entered the space, more akin to perfume.The difference in Sensory Odyssey’s use of smells is that their smells are not smells you would typically put in commercial scents (think of your perfumes and air fresheners). The manufactured scents could potentially have been more odorous for realism, but I think the right balance was struck, being just identifiable enough without putting off users.

There were other aspects to the design of the experience that were fantastic as well. Spaces had a minimalist style to it, evoking the precise feel of each video, and allowing the video to be the main focus of your attention. For example, the last segment, The End of the World, has a very wide screen and icy white seating / curtains, perfectly mirroring and showcasing the vast, picturesque beauty of the Arctic.

Last but not least, there was a design feature that was subtle, yet probably one of the most important reasons why the whole experience was so immersive: the lack of words. Unlike most galleries or exhibitions, there are no exhibit labels from the start to the end. There were no words in the videos, and no David Attenborough voice-overs. This has enhanced the visitor’s feeling of being transported into each of the environments, without any presence of humans, and therefore brings you one step closer to the feeling of nature. The museum does provide you with a brochure that had all the descriptions of each segment, but given the immersiveness of the space, I quickly forgot I was even holding it, and did not refer to it until the very end of the experience.

If I had one minor critique of the experience, it would be the presence of the ushers being slightly disruptive to the experience. Given the dim lighting and wordless nature of the experience, it is impossible not to have ushers for safety reasons – that is understandable. However, a couple of ushers along the experience were proactive in sharing bits of information about each segment. Normally that would be a positive quality, but they had unconsciously taken me out of the immersion. Perhaps it might be better for them to be more passive, and only speak if someone approaches them or is obviously unsure on where to go. However, given the linearity of the experience, it is unlikely that the visitor would be lost.

Overall, the experience definitely pushed immersion to the next level by incorporating the dimension of smell that complemented the other sensory inputs. Do give it a visit if you still have the opportunity to head down before 29 Oct 2023, but otherwise I am looking forward to more immersive experiential-based exhibitions in the future that use this as the new standard moving forward.