Saving the world with science is a great escape

Saving the world with science is a great escape

URBANA — Locked in a room full of gadgets, we need to save the world.

And we have an hour.

And we have to use science, which is no small trick for a journalist.

That's what separates the men — or women — from the boys — or girls — at LabEscape, a nonprofit escape room in Lincoln Square Mall's suite 115A.

Though not-for-profit, it's not for free.

Tickets are $20 per person, or $15 with a student ID; proceeds cover costs like rent and equipment. Reduced rates are also possible for special circumstances. Tickets can be reserved in advance at LabEscape.org.

The room just celebrated its grand opening, though it has been going since October with about 200 beta-testers.

"We've been running 'for real' for about a month now," said University of Illinois Professor Paul Kwiat.

He points out that all the science you need is right there in the room itself, so you don't have to already know anything about refraction and quantum physics — you can just enjoy the thrill of the chase. And you might learn something.

However, remember that you do need to save the free world from certain destruction in exactly 60 minutes, so there's not much pressure.

The project's mission is to create a series of puzzles based on various science phenomena.

"We'll also provide simple explanations for these amazing science phenomena, with examples of how they already play a huge role behind the scenes in your daily life," according to the mission statement.

Kwiat's team promises "you will literally see an object disappear before your eyes" with no computer-generated imaging tricks.

On our visit, the science isn't as challenging as is the clever story sequence.

The team of agents includes a couple of ringers — or at least above-average science buffs.

Jake Maher, a sophomore in materials science, and Matt Suppes, a junior in astronomy who is changing his major to physics, had a lot of the background down.

The room is large and cluttered, full of lots of items including a safe and microscope, though the safe is crackable without lasers or drill, and the microscope didn't require microbiology training.

The challenge is to find what happened to UI physicist Alberta Schrodenberg, who disappeared after developing a top-secret quantum computer that could be a boon to our world, or a terrible threat if evil forces get hold of it.

Previous groups of special agents assigned to the case have already disappeared, Kwiat explains, but they've left some clues in the lab for when you might get stuck — and there are dead ends, with clues that they are dead ends.

Kwiat had tried a couple of escape rooms a few years ago, and was intrigued.

He "completely failed to get out of my first escape room" but enjoyed it anyway.

So he kept going.

"By now I've done over a dozen," Kwiat said, including enjoying some in Champaign-Urbana.

"I immediately had the thought that we could make a really unique escape-room experience using various physical effects," he said.

Kwiat's co-conspirators are the physics department's Rebecca Wiltfong and physics Professor Tim Stelzer.

Kwiat said the effects can trick the mind.

"Many of those demos are nearly magical to see, and translate well into the puzzles in the room. I was also glad to be able to have a storyline that's relevant to current state-of-the-art research on quantum computing, teleportation and encryption."

To create the room, there was support from the UI physics department, the College of Engineering and the American Physical Society.

The escape lab also received aid from local companies and volunteers, like Amy Launspach, a sophomore in engineering physics who served as a secret agent guiding the team.

There's no need to know math, Launspach said, to enjoy the challenge. But you need to pay attention to the clues as well as texts the secret team sends out to help gamers when they hit a snag — which can be often, as it was in our case.

Kwait said he loves "seeing people call their whole team over to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over their breakthrough discovery."

But there's another simple satisfaction: "the fact that clever players continually surprise me with new solutions to some of the puzzles," the physics professor said.

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