February 12, 2016

TEDx – Virtual Reality & Theater

In November 2015, I gave a speech at TEDx Metamorphosis in Jersey City, NJ about the relationship between Virtual Reality and Theater. The principle focus of the speech explores how the two mediums overlap and could combine to generate new pathways to performance and experience. I’m currently developing a theory and approach to adapting performance practices into virtual reality presentation frameworks. As I shoot more footage and create projects, I’ll continue developing these theories into a more cohesive set of case studies for more in-depth analysis.

Disclaimer: The invitation to speak was extended only a few days prior to the event after a speaker cancelled last minute. I had approximately 48 hours to gather up my notes, write the speech and prep this first presentation of it. Unfortunately, this venue was not equipped with a teleprompter, so my phone was the best option, resulting in a lot of reading. I suggest skipping the video and simply reading the essay below instead. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to present some variation of this speech again in the future, and I’ll have a visual slideshow prepared with case studies of my work and the speech (mostly) memorized. For now… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The video is embedded here and the entire speech as originally written is below.

Virtual Reality and Theater: Simulacra and Simulation
by William Cusick

By most accounts, the phrase “virtual reality” first appeared in English in 1958, in a book about theater. Antonin Artaud coined the phrase in his widely influential text The Theatre and Its Double. Originally published in French in the 1930s, Artaud was describing the relationship of theater and reality as simulation. It should be mentioned that Artaud was a Surrealist, and as such, was adept at crafting paradoxes.

I love a good paradox. And I love a good show. Whether it’s a Broadway show or a student production, an hour long TV drama or a web series episode, a ballet or a dance recital, a rock concert or an open mic night, a Hollywood blockbuster or a no-budget short film… as long as it’s a good show, I love it.

When I see a good show or a good spectacle, I generally tell other people about it. I suggest they see it too, partly so we can share in our appreciation of it. Over the years, I’ve suggested many plays, movies, TV series, concerts and performances to others. And it’s not just me, I get recommendations from others all the time, too. We live in a spectacular society of largely passive identification, mediated by images.

Lately, I’ve been telling other people to see some Virtual Reality. It’s not like telling someone to watch an episode of TV or a movie or a play. With VR, it’s more like encouraging them just to go to the theater, any theater, to see anything at all, just to have the experience of being there.

VR is engulfed by spectacle. The spectacle is partly the wonder of a new medium taking shape, literally, right before our eyes. We watch as this new technology tries to adapt, pivot and react to our limitless expectations. Every day another article is published about Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, PlayStation VR, 360Heros, Ozo, Lytro, Jaunt, Jump, AltSpaceVR, NextVR, on and on. And every day the anticipation is growing, along with the uncertainty. And, as we know, anticipation mingled with uncertainty makes for a good story. A good show. Who doesn’t love a good show?

The subtitle of this talk refers to the book Simulacra and Simulation by philosopher Jean Baudrillard – but, it does so optimistically. In his 1981 text about mass reproduction and electronic media culture, Baudrillard coined the term hyperreality.

In our world, reality and fiction seamlessly blend together, the map precedes the territory, and signifiers have become the signified. Ultimately, Baudrillard suggests nihilism is the result of our over-mediated culture. In a world bereft of meaning or consequence, all that’s left is the virtual.

Virtual Reality as a concept is something I’ve heard of and read about all my life, primarily in fictional constructions. Movies and books are mostly where I learned how to think about Virtual Reality, without ever putting on a headset or venturing into a digital simulacrum until very recently. Who needs a headset or haptic suit with films like The Lawnmower Man and novels like Ready Player One? As a culture, we’ve been hyping up the anticipation for this new medium for nearly 50 years. It’s been the stuff of science fiction, and now it’s very nearly here, emerging into mainstream consumption though smartphones to tens of millions of users.

What does this mean for Theater?

What does affordable Virtual Reality equipment mean for contemporary performance practices?

Virtual Reality is a stage. VR is a figurative stage in the procession of the long history of theater and a virtual stage for performance. VR is an Empty Space in which theatre can occur. To crudely adapt Peter Brook’s definition, ‘a virtual man walks across this empty virtual space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’ Theater has a long history of evolving and adapting new technologies for thousands of years.

Theater has absorbed all forms of mechanical engineering and architecture. Theater has taken electric light and recorded sound and made them characters onstage. Photography and film projection made it onto the stage almost immediately after invention. And in recent years, digital video projection and interconnectivity have become part of the integral language of theater, as virtual scenery, interactive visuals and moving imagery. Technology and Theater are bound together.


If Theater is defined by presence, by the live performer in the presence of a live audience, and VR is defined by isolation, the lone, captivated, audience member inside of a headset, what happens when they are combined? This combination of “Live Theater As We Know It” and “Virtual Reality As Traditionally Represented in Media” may not seem like an immediate fit. And that’s because it isn’t an accurate representation.

When Virtual Reality is working, it creates the feeling of presence. We cross the threshold from isolation into presence where our brain says “this is real” and the feeling of an experience actually happening occurs. Technologists have been in pursuit of this level of engagement for decades. Arguably, storytellers in all mediums have been engaging in narrative as virtual reality since the beginning. And yet, new forms demand new formulas. In the absence of meaning, in a virtual reality, the signification itself takes precedence and performance transforms into symbols.

As the tools of VR creation become increasingly available to artists and audience, vital questions emerge. Will VR revolutionize the creation and experience of live performance? Or will the same shows and techniques be repackaged again and again? Performance artists have been working with mediated liveness for decades. The questions need to evolve because a new audience is coming online. Is the potential of virtual spectatorship greater than that of a live audience seated in a theater?

When a VR show is live streamed to a decentralized audience, the experience should be individualized and curated. A bland and homogeneous VR experience defeats the purpose and denies the potential of VR. The creator of the live VR show and the live VR viewer both must do the job of experiential curation. Users must have choices and creators must make those options available, if not entirely obvious. Individual choice must play a role in live, performative, real-time Virtual Reality.

When VR feels strictly like a simulation of sitting in an audience, where we have the choice to look around but not move, the experience fails. Even in the audience, we can get up and move around, sometimes change seats or even get up and go to the lobby. Yes, I’m suggesting virtual theaters should have virtual lobbies, bathrooms and the option to explore those during a show, instead of feeling trapped inside a theater of captivity.

VR comes with new politics of perception. The audience could be set free to participate in the experience and determine their point of view in an almost metaphysical fashion.

The individual audience member should be able to shift perspective throughout the event. A single camera is not sufficient. And a single intermission is probably oppressive. The virtual audience members ought to be given free reign to move around the virtual space. And the live performers ought to know where each audience member is throughout the show.

Placing a 180 or 360 degree camera on the stage or near the action is more restrictive than creative, more physically paralyzing than watching a pre-recorded event from a single perspective. But, one of the topics often discussed as a problem with movement in Virtual Reality is a feeling of nausea, a feeling of sea-sickness. When most people start using VR, they can only do it for a few minutes at a time, slowly easing into it. This nausea we feel in Virtual Reality is similar to the nausea we feel in Real Reality. Simply put, when our perceptions don’t line up with expectations, we feel ill. But, once we get used to the experience of VR, the nausea subsides and it can become a very comfortable experience as an audience member.

However, there is still the potential for anxiety – the anxiety of being trapped in a single place, pivoting on a single axis, incapable of getting any closer or farther away from a virtual event. The more time you spend in VR as a spectator, the more the natural human impulse to interact develops and increases. The experience of looking at static 360 photos gives way to the desire to look at 360 videos, and then to move through these videos, and then to control your own movements. Beyond just a headset, controllers become an essential component for engagement and embodiment of the virtual.

So, clearly, half of the equation is the audience. The virtual man walking across the virtual stage must be observed, from an infinite number of potential angles. The concern here is the audience and their relationship to the technology – and how they actually use it. Developers of new technology will often discover that what they had planned simply isn’t what the end users need or want. Naturally, the end users hack the technology for other purposes. The X-Box Kinect is one example of a technology that had its purpose transformed by end-users who saw potential for reinvention. This brings up more questions about the newly affordable VR technologies and how mass market VR can be integrated into theater, or become a form of theater.

VR can supplant traditional theatrical experiences for a contemporary audience, if the technology is widely adopted and easily accessible to everyone. Broadcasting to decentralized audiences has been possible for decades through the mediums of radio, television and the Internet. The question now is if the Virtual Reality headset and controller can merge with Theater to create the experience of remote embodied liveness between performer and audience.

The use of VR headsets and controller within a traditional theatrical setting also has great potential. There is something about wearing a headset that can actually make live, group-watched performances a more personalized experience. You can be alone in a crowd, visually isolated by the technology and yet still fully engaged in the shared experience.

Compared to Theater, VR is still in its infancy. And yet – Virtual Reality and Theater are each other’s double. Combining the Virtually Real and the Really Virtual creates the potential for a double paradox of Live Virtual Reality Theater. I love a good paradox. And, real or virtual, I’ll always love a good show.

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