Virtual Reality technology is increasingly more sophisticated and powerful, and it’s predicted to fully hit the mainstream within the next year. In the performing arts VR has been adopted slowly, most commonly used for immersive experiences. However, there may be a lost opportunity: institutions can use VR simply to grow audiences. A variety of barriers, from accessiblity issues to time pressures, can prevent people from attending the theatre, even if they want to be there. From a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, 33% of interested non-attendees in the performing arts cited difficulty getting to the venue and 11% claimed that they didn’t want to visit that location. Can VR be used effectively to bridge that gap and bring these outside audiences into the theatre? And if so, would it be able to provide them a comprable experience to attending in person? To answer these questions, we need to look at what is required to feel present at a live theatre event and how VR and other technologically mediated experiences can create that feeling of presence.
In the Theater
Two major things contribute to the feeling you get when attending a live theater event – the live nature of the performance and the community connection. Traditionally the definition of “live” and the idea of “liveness” is dependent on a physical co-presence in the same space, however developments in technology lead to a constantly evolving understanding of what actually counts as a live performance. As stated by Philip Auslander in a piece on technologically mediated performance, some definitions now “operate primarily in the temporal dimension rather than the spatial one,” meaning that it can feel like a live performance regardless of distance. An example of this would be in watching a livestream of a performance – while it’s clear that you’re not physically present at the performance it still feels as if you’re watching it live, in the space, despite the mediation of the screen. This shows that physical presence is not necessarily a requirement to make the performance feel live, though it can help enhance that feeling.
Community is also a very important part of the theater-going experience, as a sense of community with other audience members can be created through shared quiet moments when the lights dim, audience responses throughout the performance, or even audience member involvement in the performance. Historically the audience, and subsequently the community it creates, is formed through their simultaneous presence in the same place, but it can be argued that the multi-directional communication provided by things like social VR can allow this community to still form despite geographical distance. Because of this, can that sense of community be created through virtual presence in the theater space?
Presence in Virtual Reality
The experience of presence is a complex one, involving multiple dimensions of perception, but at its most basic it can be divided into the ideas of physical presence and social presence. Physical presence is as it sounds, referring to the feeling of being physically located somewhere – including a mediated space. So far in its life, physical presence has been the main goal of VR, though social presence is becoming more and more relevant in the field. Social presence refers to the perception that you’re truly communicating with someone else, whether that someone is a computer-generated character or another user (Jerald). This level of presence can be created from something as simple as an online chat room or a phone call. While it’s possible - and in fact very easy - to have one without the other, the two can also exist simultaneously. At the intersection of the two is the idea of “co-presence,” or “a sense of being together in a shared space”.
In recent years, VR has greatly developed in its ability to create the sense of physical presence. In fact, when done right, users truly feel present and consider the experience to be a “place visited rather than simply something perceived” (Jerald). Efforts in creating social presence are still relatively new in the development of VR technologies. However, multi-user VR systems exist, and developers are working to create communities and enhance communication methods within them. The end goal of most VR experiences – particularly those that involve creating a feeling of co-presence – is the “illusion of non-mediation,” where users forget that there experience is mediated by a VR platform. This has already been shown to be possible, and thus it is easy to understand how it could be created through virtual attendance at a theater event.
While there are a few case studies of theatres using VR, there are a greater number of recent examples of similar methods being used for live music concerts. In 2017, LiveNation partnered with a company called NextVR to stream to Global Citizen Music Festival, as well as to add a LiveNation channel on their VR platform - to broadcast recordings of concerts. Another similar company, MelodyVR, is also doing something similar. They’ve begun acquiring licenses from major record labels and made deals with more than 600 artists to stream their concerts through VR.
In addition, while not using VR for the purpose of augmenting live theatre attendance, the company LIVR is promoting VR for theatre viewing. Billed as the “world’s first on-demand virtual reality experience for theatre,” LIVR is a UK-based streaming service providing 360° recordings of theatre productions. While not the same as a live viewing experience, this platform does provide a nice alternative for some audiences who are unable to attend certain shows.
These examples of existing theatre and live entertainment experiences demonstrate the evolving opportunities to use VR to connect distant audiences to live events. Already in the past few years VR has made great strides, constantly getting better at creating feelings of both physical presence and social presence for users. It’s likely that VR attendance will never be able to fully replace live attendance at performances, but it can go a long way to create connections with audience members who otherwise wouldn’t be there at all.
Auslander, Philip. “Live and technologically mediated performance.” In The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, edited by Tracy C. Davis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Bluhme-Kohout, Margaret E., Sara R. Leonard, and Jennifer L. Novak-Leonard. When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2015. Accessed March 21, 2019. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/when-going-gets-tough-revised2.pdf
Givens, Willard. “From The Soundboard: Virtual Reality Could Transform the Live Music Experience.” Daily Trojan. January 28, 2019. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://dailytrojan.com/2019/01/27/from-the-soundboard-virtual-reality-could-transform-the-live-music-experience/.
Ijsselsteijn, Wijnand, and Giuseppe Riva. “Being There: The Experience of Presence in Mediated Environments.” Emerging Communication: Studies in New Technologies and Practices in Communication. 5. (2013): 3-16. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/200772398_Being_There_The_Experience_of_Presence_in_Mediated_Environments
Jerald, Jason. The VR Book : Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality First edition. New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2016.
Marr, Bernard. “5 Important Augmented And Virtual Reality Trends For 2019 Everyone Should Read.” Forbes. January 14, 2019. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/01/14/5-important-augmented-and-virtual-reality-trends-for-2019-everyone-should-read/#1f48d63122e7.
Masso, Giverny. "'World's first virtual reality theatre platform' launches". The Stage. March 14, 2019. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2019/worlds-first-virtual-reality-theatre/.
Masura, Nadja. “Digital Theatre: A ‘Live’ and Mediated Art Form Expanding Perceptions of Body, Place, and Community,” PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2007. http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/7430.