Virtual Reality And The Stage

Virtual Reality And The Stage
November 29, 2016

I want to tell you about the most powerful moment I have experienced in a virtual reality video. It was the moment that made me finally understand the immense potential of VR and it carries important lessons as we strive to understand the potential, uses, and best practices of this new medium. Most of all, it highlights the importance of thinking in theatrical terms when making VR video experiences.


It happened during Inside the Box of Kurios a 360 video from Cirque du Soleil and produced by Felix & Paul (for which they won a Daytime Emmy). In it, the fantastical, mechanistic contraptions and characters of the show parade before you and surround you as you sit in the middle of a big top circus tent. I was mesmerized by the acrobatic ability of the performers, the detail of the costume, and the diversity of human scale on display.


What struck me so profoundly, however, was much simpler. Halfway through the show, a small group of musicians walked past me on stage and stood beside me, just outside of my field of vision. Their music accompanied the acrobatics that were the focus of the scene. At one point, during a brief lull in the action, I turned to look towards the band. Just as I did, one of the members looked up from the bass he was plucking, made eye contact with me, and then pointed to the center stage. I turned quickly, just in time to see a fantastical choreographed sequence.


From one perspective, it was one of the more mundane moments of the video. It certainly could not compare to the giant mechanical hand or the man juggling while suspended fifty feet in the air. I would bet, in fact, that the majority of viewers missed it entirely as their view was focused elsewhere. So why was it so powerful? Because it placed me in the scene. I was suddenly there. Not observing from a distance, not some passive avatar. No, I had made connection to the musician. Even though part of my mind knew it was all pre-recorded, I could not shake the feeling that that bassist had noticed my attention slipping and that he didn’t want me to miss the coming surprise. Instead of watching that moment, I had lived it.


Now, this moment was, at least in part, a product of luck. If I had turned a few seconds earlier or later, the full impact of the look up, the eye contact, and the pointing would have been diminished or lost. At the same time, though, there was a thoughtfulness to it. The scene was transitioning from one stunt to another, exactly the time when one’s attention might wander. Rewatching the video, I saw similar moments throughout the piece, where characters actively directed the viewer’s attention back to the main focus of the scene. Even though any one viewer would miss most of the gestures, there were enough scattered throughout the piece to ensure would see one and be drawn deeper into the piece, as I was. What’s more, they gave it a kind of replay value. Rewatching is rewarded as the viewer explores different parts of the video and encounters more pleasing moments of interaction.


So, what can we learn from this brilliant little scene? Well, first, it highlights the primacy of physical location in VR. When you are watching these videos you exist in the space in a vital way, totally unlike traditional film. Not being acknowledged as such feels weird and disorienting, while subtle cues that affirm your presence pull you deeper in. It also illustrates the importance of interactivity. Even in a passive 360 video like this, having the scene seem to respond to my view made it that much more powerful an experience. As we search for metaphors through which to understand this new medium, the importance of interactivity and physicality in space indicate that VR videos should be thought of more in theatrical terms than cinematic.


It is not surprising that a company like Cirque du Soleil created that incredible moment. Stage actors, magicians, acrobats and other live performers are trained to respond to and interact with their audience. Because the perspective of an audience in a theater cannot be tightly controlled as in a movie, these performers learn how to subtly direct attention on a stage. They are comfortable working in a context where the audience is a physical presence that must be accounted for in staging and moving around. And they have developed tricks, gestures, and movements to engage the audience should its attention wander. Theater is also a particularly instructive given the current state of VR hardware. While rapid advancements are being made, resolution is still low and detail can be lost. Theater actors and directors are used to thinking in terms where the audience can’t see every fine detail. Their mindset is thus well suited to the new medium of VR videos. They are already trained to think in terms of engaging an audience and creating connections, helping to realize the full immersive potential of VR.


The implications of the medium’s parallels to the theater are wide ranging. It affects everything from where you produce content (New York’s live theater community is a rich source of potential talent) to the stories you tell (plays, with their relatively little movement and a variety of focal points, seem more ready for adaptation than movies, with their rapid cuts and tight focus.) If we spend less time thinking about VR movies and more thinking about VR plays, our content will be better for it.


This shift in mindset is especially important for users like brands, creative agencies, and publishers who are not as used to thinking in theatrical terms. Keeping in mind the salient points of physicality in space and interaction with the viewer should be helpful as they envision and produce content in this new medium. The end result is potentially engaging, immersive content far more memorable than traditional advertising. I am looking forward to that reality! In the meantime, to make it happen, look to the theater.

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