What VR Pioneers Can Learn From New York’s Hottest Play

Editor’s Note: Noah Nelson reports on virtual reality for TurnstyleNews.com, a tech culture site from Youth Radio

After two years of hype from the tech press about the return of virtual reality, we’re waking up to the hard reality of a content gap. The skepticism stems from the observation that while VR is neat-o, there’s not that much you can actually do with it at the moment.

This is a bit unfair to the virtual reality pioneers.

There wasn’t this much press attention back in the homebrew days of personal computing, which is a bit closer to what’s really going on in VR. Then again, there probably wasn’t this much money being thrown at homebrew PCs by Hollywood.

That Oculus VR held its first developers conference steps away from where the Academy Awards take place was no accident.

There are two big streams of content being developed for VR: games and what’s being called “cinematic VR.” Nine virtual reality experiences were on display at this month’s Sundance Film Festival. The pieces include documentaries, a full-body flight simulation, and a 360-degree Kaiju (giant monster) attack. That says a lot about the diversity of cinematic VR, and the excitement that has been generated by the new medium in filmmaking circles.

The biggest disruption that’s going to come about because of VR isn’t a matter of distribution or monetization: it’s in how performances are presented, and the ways that actors, musicians, and others are going to have to change the way they approach their craft.

Those who want to make content for VR that involves actors—be it cinema or game narratives—would be wise to pay attention to the “immersive theater” movement that has London as its capital and New York City as its chief colony. A lot can be learned from the way that the British group Punchdrunk stages Sleep No More, an immersive retelling ofMacbeth.

The play is deconstructed and then reconstituted as a video-game like narrative that runs on a loop. Instead of being stuck in a chair, the audience gets to walk around various sets at will, in much the same way that VR users control what they experience. This creates interesting staging puzzles for the production staff — how do you manage “attention” when you don’t know what frame your audience is looking through?

This is the problem that anyone who is creating VR content faces: your audience could be staring at a cat while your protagonist is agonizing over a moral quandary.

There are two big “tricks” that Punchdrunk uses to manage attention can be adapted to VR.

The first is the approach to sound design: a score sets the mood in every room of Sleep No More’s “McKittrick Hotel.” After a while, it’s possible to navigate to points of interest just by “reading” the music in a room. A “dead” space, for example, features the sound of a needle circling the last groove of a record over and over. It’s a subtle cue, but it lets you know it’s time to move on.

The second is using the attention of the actors to manage the attention of the audience. In one big scene focus shifts seamlessly from a half-dozen characters who interact with Lady Macbeth onto her, and from her to Doomed Scot himself once she catches sight of him. It’s an amazing entrance made all the more so by the fact that a given audience member could be almost anywhere in a space with a mezzanine, yet still get the full impact of the moment.

What makes it work is a kind of “contagion theory.” If the person you were watching gives charged attention to someone else, that someone else then becomes the focus.

In the same way that time is the primary attribute that a film director plays with,attention is the attribute that VR producers must mold and shape.

The core lesson for VR content creators is to start thinking in terms of what works in physical space, and not just the flat screens that a century of media production has become designed to accommodate. Think of it as theater’s revenge on the silver screen. An opportunity to bring some of the old magic back, thanks to new tech.