The brain-tingling world of ASMR collides with science fiction
An inexplicably-soothing audiovisual phenomenon is making fascinating inroads toward interactivity, futurism and VR
Hundreds of thousands of people fall asleep to the sound of Ally Maque's voice. She's the creator and star of a series of videos designed to stimulate a phenomenon known as ASMR—autonomous sensory meridian response—a rush of tranquilizing, tingling sensations that growing numbers of people say they experience when they hear sounds like whispering, rustling and tapping.
"ASMRtists" like Maque create videos with audio cues designed to trigger these responses, which often garner millions of views from fans who use them to combat insomnia, fend off panic attacks, or just relax. Typical examples involve speaking softly to viewers, doing repetitive tasks, or creating role-play experiences around mundane experiences like getting a haircut.
But where ASMR can sound kind of, well, boring, especially to people who don't experience its signature "brain tingle," some of Maque's work is pushing ASMR into exciting new territory as well: science fiction, futurism, and virtual reality.
"This is a story about biology," whispers Maque in a video titled FutureCalm, her voice circling around listeners in a binaural loop. "There is a biochemist—two scientists, actually—at the University of California Berkeley who just received three million dollars each for their invention of what could be a revolutionary tool for editing DNA."
Her face floating before a black background, she goes on to describe other recent advances in science and technology in her characteristic hushed tones, like a sunlight-simulating skylight that could make underground buildings more livable, or a breathalyzer that might allow your smartphone to detect cancer. It's a soothing recitation of human progress; think of it as the antidote to every doomsday article about global warming that keeps you up at night.
"I personally get a mood boost when I learn about exciting advancements, especially in science, technology, medicine—things I know will push us forward as a species and improve the quality of life of everyone on the planet," says Maque. "That makes me feel warm and cozy when I think about it, which is the whole point of ASMR. I thought that if I get that happy, hopeful feeling from hearing about progress, then others might as well. What better way to end your day and relax and go to sleep than to hear about things that might put you in a good mood?"
ASMR isn't a scientific term; it was coined by an enthusiast, and there's been little to no scientific research on the phenomenon, despite an abundance of anecdotal evidence. Regardless, it's clearly struck a soothing nerve for millions of viewers, many of whom say it finally gave a name to an experience they'd had their entire lives.
Much like a lot of other unconventional subcultures, the internet has played a crucial role in connecting and uniting ASMR enthusiasts around a common—if niche—experience. It's cultivated a community of people around the world who not only enjoy but enjoy creating a wealth of content designed to produce "brain tingles"; searching for ASMR on Youtube currently brings up more than 1.7 million results.
"The ASMR community as it currently is wouldn't even be here without the internet," says Maque. "I feel like we have the internet to thank for helping us all find each other and bringing us together."
Maque was introduced to ASMR about two and a half years ago by her boyfriend—and now collaborator—Josh Dekotora. "I was so fascinated by the idea that this whole universe of people existed that shared this common experience that not everyone did," she says. After encouragement from Dekotora, she decided to make an ASMR video of her on own and upload it to Youtube.
By the next morning, she already had a couple hundred subscribers to her account. "I've never spoken in [public], so the idea that so many people wanted to see more from me was kind of mind-blowing," says Maque. She now has more than 230,000 Youtube subscribers, and earns over $2,600 each month through her crowd-funded Patreon account.
Her videos run the gamut from "Memory Erasure Role Play," inspired by the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to "Let's Make a Gingerbread House for Relaxation," and even "Time Travel Tingles," where Maque whispers about nostalgic icons like Legend of Zelda, painter Bob Ross, or R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books.
But with over two million views, her most popular video so far is Departure, a science fiction adventure that straddles the line between ASMR and more traditional storytelling. Unlike most ASMR videos, which tend to be self-contained, Departure is an episodic story that asks the viewer to step into the shoes of a mysterious character from a futuristic world who's going on the run in outer space.
"It's sort of a dystopian future," says Maque. "Big corporations are running things even more than they do today, and not necessarily in a way that benefits people." In the first episode, she appears the a travel agent who helps you book your trip to the stars, but you later learn that she's an android—one of countless identical models from a line of robot laborers called the Sherri 3000.
A long-time fan of science fiction, Maque says she and Dekotora have developed a rich backstory around the world of "Departure," and that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Maque cites Philip K. Dick as a major inspiration for the series, and fans of both sci-fi and classical literature should listen closely in the second episode, which includes subtle references not only to Norse mythology but to the Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise"—which itself alludes to Homer's Odyssey.
What makes Departure stand out isn't just its involved storyline, but its surprisingly slick special effects. She's been collaborating with a visual effects house in the United Kingdom on "making Departure an even bigger project," and also working on getting the series into virtual reality. While there's been no official release, at least one eager fan has already found a way to view the two-dimensional video through a VR player.
Maque has other virtual reality ASMR experiences in the works as well, including one designed specifically for VR devices. She and Dekotora have co-founded a media network called PixelWhipt, where they plan to create more VR content that combines the intimate sensory experience of ASMR with the immersion of headsets like the Oculus Rift.
Creating visual stories from a first-person perspective has posed some interesting creative challenges for Maque, especially when it comes to making viewers feel personally involved. Her Sherri 3000 character often asks questions—like where you want to travel for your space vacation, or which dream sequence you'd like to experience during cryosleep—and then reacts to the answers you supposedly give.
"I give them the illusion that they have choice, but they don't," says Maque. "I'm directing the plot of the story, but I need to make it feel natural—to not make them feel like they're doing something again their will."
These one-sided interactions also gave Maque a way to drop clues through out the first two episodes that everything was not what it seems. At several points, Sherri 3000's reactions to the viewer's "responses" imply that you don't actually care where you're going, and rather than taking a vacation, you might actually be running away from something. But from what?
Questions about the value of interactivity and choice—or the illusion of choice—are hot topics of debate in the world of video games, but Maque finds them particularly interesting at the intersection of ASMR and VR.
"That's a big question that we've been asking ourselves in VR community too," she says. "With Departure, there was no real interaction; you can't choose things, like in a game. But the future of entertainment and storytelling in virtual reality is going to be trickier than that. Because you do want to allow a certain amount of interaction, so at what point does it become gaming?"
Maque is excited to find out, and thinks there's room for ASMR experiences to offer choice and interactivity and still soothe viewers, much like she believed there was room for brain tingles to coexist with long-form storytelling. "I've played games that made me feel really relaxed," she says, so why not?
"I want it to be relaxing enough and have enough ASMR elements that it's still for my people, my tribe, but not so much that it alienates the mainstream," she says Maque. "I'm so excited about it. There's so much possibility right now to consider."
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