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What Will Virtual Reality Do For the Performing Arts?

In a few days Sony will release its PlayStation VR virtual reality headset. PSVR is, in the eyes of many, the best chance for virtual reality to find its way into mainstream homes. Priced at $550, it’s far less expensive than the other serious headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which will set you back close to (or over) $1000. Those devices also require a powerful PC to run, which could cost thousands of dollars more for people who don’t already have one. The PSVR simply requires a PlayStation 4.

The promise of robust VR experiences in the home is exciting. From the time I’ve spent with the PSVR at events and exhibitions, it’s the real deal. Immersing yourself into games opens the doors to all kinds of other experiences such as placing yourself in simulations of everything from the International Space Station to historical recreations of the battle of Waterloo.

How might creative theatre companies work with VR to create an entirely new experience of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s all very exciting, and VR may well be the technology that does more for the arts than anything that has come before it.

The performing arts, from music through to theatre will be able to offer audiences entirely different experiences as the technology becomes ingrained into mainstream consciousness.

While I was in Japan last month I got a taste for what a creative theatre company could do with VR when I played Zero Latency VR created by a Melbourne start up. A small group of us put on the VR goggles and were each given a gun. We were then moved into a large, empty space and through the goggles we saw a vision of city streets overrun with zombies. Our goal was simple; survive the onslaught.

We had free movement in this space, so we tried to co-ordinate ourselves to plot our tactics. This was difficult given my lack of Japanese skills and my allies limited English. Every bad movie SWAT Team strategy became something we tried, and I can only imagine how amusing our complete incompetence must have looked. Then the zombies broke through our defences, and the screaming started.

It was quite intense; a far more extreme horror than what you’ll experience playing a game on a flat screen. I found it thrilling, and was laughing as I was inevitably swamped by zombies (I might have a problem), but the the game did have to stop it a couple of times because others needed a break to calm their nerves.

Yes, this was a nonsense bit of entertainment; a sideshow and diversion. I’m not claiming that Zero Latency VR has in itself created a masterpiece here, but then you could say the same about Georges Méliès’ films. As with Méliès’ work, what Zero Latency VR was able to show was that VR has all the ingredients to give us an entirely new kind of performance art.

Could we inspire our next generation of ballet dancers by giving them simulations where they get to be part of a performance of Swan Lake?

There was a defined space the game took place in, and we were the actors. The game’s engine was able to facilitate a storytelling world, but it was up to us to actually create the story, and we did that by play acting roles, and interacting with one another.

How might creative theatre companies work with VR to create an entirely new experience of Romeo and Juliet? Could we be looking at gamifying the experience of going to a symphony by inverting the role of the audience; tasking them to play virtual instruments like a rhythm game for the approval of a computer-generated audience? Could we inspire our next generation of ballet dancers by giving them simulations where they get to be part of a performance of Swan Lake?

At the moment, the interest in virtual reality is driven by gaming. That’s where all the money backing its development has come from. But gaming was already on a path that was bringing it into ever-greater similarities with other artistic mediums, and virtual reality will accelerate that trend.

Depending on who you speak to, virtual reality might just be a step on the way to proper augmented reality, but even if that’s the case, the excitement behind it now is palpable. Bring it on.

*Matt Sainsbury is a digital art critic and author. He has published the book, Game Art (No Starch Press), and writes about Asian entertainment at DigitallyDownloaded.net

Main image: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet.

3 responses to “What Will Virtual Reality Do For the Performing Arts?

  1. As a disabled middle aged person often confined to wheelchair I immediately thought of the implications for me and millions of other similarly affected individuals,its another big market to tap!

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