How virtual reality could revolutionise performance arts

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Wearable technology promises a new type of drama. By Tom Bawden

Technology may have fundamentally shaken up the film, music, TV and newspaper industries, but performance arts such as dance, drama, opera and concerts have followed the same template for centuries, with today’s shows little different from those put on in Shakespeare’s times.

All that could be about to change. Scientists from King’s College London are working with Ericsson, the National Theatre, the Young Vic and virtual headset developers on a new entertainment form they believe will revolutionise the arts world.

The idea is to allow users to “experience” dramatic productions when and where they like through an on-demand service. “The idea is to really disrupt the performing arts world the same way Netflix has disrupted TV. It’s only early days but everyone is super-excited about it,” said Mischa Dohler, a King’s College professor and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

“Things haven’t been disrupted since Shakespeare – in fact, I would argue, since Greek times. It’s always the same thing. We are looking at The productions arising from the new format would typically involve several locations and potentially involve the viewer in the action.

Initially the locations are likely to be in London but would spread throughout the UK and across continents. So they might, for example, have one “stage” set in the Amazon rainforest, another in a helicopter over the ocean and a third showing a choir in an active volcano.

The real action taking place in these locations could be mixed with holograms or virtual reality elements to boost the dramatic effect, building a technology platform that would allow people to procure and consume theatre in a totally new way,” he added. “When you watch a video of Madonna singing, or a Shakespeare performance, you don’t get the hair going up on the back of your neck, as you do when you’re there in the audience. We want to come up with a new type of performance that captures that intensity,” Professor Dohler said.

The new format will centre on a virtual reality headset (inset), and a sensory “haptic” glove which enables wearers to feel sensations. Wearable technology made from a soft fabric that wraps around the body like a second skin and allows users to feel sensations on their skin may also be involved. The glove is intended to replicate feelings such as the sensation of the rain as it falls in a scene or of catching a ball as it’s caught by a performer in a production. It may also help the user to feel the same things as the actors, such as a handshake, the touch of body, an object’s feel. This “teleporting” of the senses may even be extended to make the user believe fire is approaching.

King’s is working with the National Theatre, the Young Vic and Battersea Arts Centre on a trial production that would involve three stages, three sets of actors and three separate audiences, all of them connected. They plan to perform and record the show over the summer – a production they hope will be the first of numerous such events.

The longer-term aim is to build a library of productions that people can draw on, as Netflix has done for TV. People could then buy the equipment and pay a subscription to use the service. If all goes to plan, it is hoped such a commercial service could be up and running within five years.