Sunday, November 26, 2017

Will we be experiencing theatre via VR in the future?


RSC Titus Andronicus 2017
I've been reading about a study by the RSC and Ipsos Mori done during a run of Titus Andronicus in Stratford earlier this year. They were exploring uses of new technology, such as VR (virtual reality) in the theatre.

In the experiment, a group of participants viewed a 360 degree film of Titus Andronicus via HTC Vive VR headsets and wore heart rate monitors. The film was created by Gorilla In The Room. The experience allowed participants to move their head and could view any aspect of the theatre, stage, audience as they wished as if they were seated in that position at the theatre. This was compared with a previous project to monitor the emotional engagement of a theatre and cinema audience by the same research team.

The 360 degree filmed VR experience was viewed in 5 parts – rather than in the usual 2 parts that you would experience in the theatre or cinema. There were a mix of short breaks as well as a main interval where you would normally expect to have one.

These results are based on the data from 107 participants and some of the findings include:

There are more people with a raised heart rate in Theatre at the very start of the performance than we see for Cinema and 360 filmed VR experience - this is perhaps driven by higher levels of anticipation and excitement.

Watching Titus Andronicus raised heart rate to a level equivalent of a 5-minute cardio workout”
Audience heart rate is raised to the level of a cardio workout zone for an average of 5 minutes (3% of time) across the full performance of Titus Andronicus[1]. This is consistent across participants in Theatre, Cinema and the 360 filmed VR experience. This chimes with my piece earlier in the week of research into the Dreamgirls audience.

Men showed a greater emotional reaction - The heart rate data of the men in the study suggests a very slightly greater increase in reaction compared to female participants. I wonder if this was down to the subject matter. I can't say I've ever been drawn to watch Titus Andronicus.

A 360 degree filmed VR experience has the power to transport you into the theatre. 91% of those watching the performance via the VR headset felt there were times when they were physically present in the theatre. This compares to approximately 63% for those watching the show live on screen in the cinema. That sounds very promising for the future of theatre and having the ability to bring a very full experience of the theatre to the living room.

Theatre wins out over cinema in overall positive engagement and empathy. Participant feedback indicated greater overall positivity (excellent/awesome etc.), engagement (gripping, thought provoking, empathy etc.) and shock in Theatre – with more attention to the elements of staging, costume, set, plot, music and choreography. Those watching via 360 filmed VR also had a higher level of emotional engagement than the cinema audiences.

Lower shock levels in the cinema may indicate that viewers feel further removed/desensitised to the violence/gore. However, cinema was perceived to be significantly more ‘moving’ than either theatre of 360 video - possibly due to the cinematic style directing the viewers eye to the details of actor expressions (e.g. tear rolling down Lavinia’s cheek) which are often missed by theatre audiences due to the distance from the stage. You can't get close-ups in the theatre like you can on a cinema screen.

There are still issues with VR. It's not for everyone as it can trigger nausea and vertigo. The headsets are heavy and they're isolating so you need to be in a safe environment to use it as you're completely cut off from all other audio or visual clues as to what may be going on around you.

The RSC is naturally encouraged by the research. Theatre is outperforming cinema in terms of engagement, empathy and ability to shock. Sarah Ellis, RSC Director of Digital Development said: ‘This presented a unique opportunity for us to compare the emotional reaction to one of Shakespeare’s plays on three different platforms. The results have shown us that even after more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s work still packs an emotional punch to today’s audiences wherever and however it is experienced'.

Day 26/30 NaBloPoMo