People have been talking about virtual reality and augmented reality for years, but in the past 12 months technology has caught up with the hype. Chip speeds have improved, graphic cards have been perfected that can process the required frames-per-second rate to stop dizziness or disorientation, while prices – still high at the consumer end of the spectrum – are starting to come down.
So far, so techy. But why should arts organisations care?
AR and VR offer a new way to make live performance more immersive. For theatregoers and music fans, it provides the ability to go deeper into the background or context of a work or composition and experience the fullness of what the creators intended when developing the piece.
These technologies also have the potential to make the experience of going out more convenient, and to make more interesting performances to start with.
Look at what a few outliers are doing with the technology:
- The National Theatre’s production of The Plough and the Stars used virtual reality to help actors better prepare for roles, allowing them to ‘see’ the lives of their characters during the Easter Rising through an Oculus Rift headset. It allowed them to follow the play’s 10-year-old protagonist through the streets of 1916 Dublin as he takes part in a violent armed insurgency in the hope of forming an Irish Republic. It went so well that the NT has now extended the experience to the general public with a VR ‘experience’ (a video for lack of a better term) narrated by Liam Cunningham available in a dedicated room before and after each performance of the play.
- Planning summer holidays? Visitors to Paris who don’t speak French but want to take in some theatre can now use AR glasses to see a simultaneous translation of live productions while in the theatre. Aside from making life easier for English tourists, VR also promises to make performances more accessible, particularly for the hearing and visually impaired.
- Damon Albarn’s Wonder.land opera, a retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story in which Alice explores the new virtual world she’s discovered on the other side of the looking glass, had more than 90,000 visitors don headsets last year to join her on a trip through the rabbit hole.
Intriguing and highly creative, but of course it’s still early days and not hard to spot potential objections: doesn’t the tech distract from the story? Isn’t it expensive? Will this really attract new patrons – won’t it put off the traditional (analogue) theatre audience, even if it does pull in a few millennials?
If we think about it, these are the same worries the industry had when live streaming first arrived on the scene. And it’s gone down a storm.
The way we access art has changed.
The fact is, this generation of entertainment consumers is the most demanding there has ever been, with services such as Netflix making it easier than ever to watch whatever we want, any time, any place, and even anticipate what we want based on user data.
Obviously this has been disruptive to the broader entertainment industry, and people in the arts worry about its impact on our sector. Will we reach a point where people eventually feel no need to attend a theatre, finding that all their entertainment needs are satisfied by their Sky Plus box or Netflix subscription?
Personally, I doubt it. Years of working with arts organisations and seeing them adapt to new technology (as well as a lifetime of being an audience member) tells me that technology will always be an add-on that supplements the live experience. People’s love for watching theatre hasn’t diminished, but the list of ways that people can interact with theatre is growing. And those are options that arts organisations can use to increase engagement and interest.
A study by the National's NT Live department suggests live streaming is allowing the arts to reach a younger and less affluent audience, as well as older people who may not be able to make it to a theatre, particularly those on the other side of the country. As pointed out in The Economist: "Streaming is less a threat than a hope, doing more than any other innovation to tackle the elitism and the lack of access that plague the performing arts today."
And 2014 research from Nesta showed that live theatre streams were creating higher engagement in London and having no impact on theatregoing regionally. On that basis, the introduction of new technology is actually fuelling demand for more theatre.
VR and AR are still firmly in this emerging tech category, but each has huge potential as a value-add supplement that brings something new and valuable to the live experience.
I’m not here to sell you AR or VR products or even promote the technology per se – Spektrix has no application to either medium. What I do want to promote is arts industry experimentation; trying something new to better engage customers and pull people through the door.
The arts sector faces stiff competition from other forms of leisure activity in the cultural and pure entertainment realms. These all have an increasingly tech-connected aspect as a standard feature. One has to assume that the inclusion of a digital element is quickly becoming a baseline expectation for all consumer experiences.
So moving technology to centre stage could be a way to reach new audiences who think that traditional theatre isn't for them. And a way to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive environment.
Of course there's still space for classical theatre. Not every outing needs to be digitally enhanced, but it’s important to understand the available options.
So does that mean budgeting a big purchase of VR headsets and augmented reality software for 2017? Likely not. But it is time for some intelligent tinkering with the new medium so it moves beyond big outliers such as the NT.
Since you’ve read this far: I highly recommend the case study of the Half Real project in Australia, which used Spatial Augmented Reality technology, which used Spatial Augmented Reality technology to immerse actors in a projected virtual world and take live, real-time input from audiences to influence the direction of the narrative in each performance. A bit of stimulus goes a long way.