Imagine you walking along a destroyed place with much debris and dirt on the floor. You look around and try to guess what this place looked like and whether you may have been there before.
You see strange men in black behind your back, staring at you intensively and following your moves. Then you approach a camp of some sort of refugees and hear them talking about their past experience and the way they got here. Welcome to Home | Aamir.
No, it’s not a film plot and Home | Aamir isn’t a refugee camp – it’s a virtual reality show, the latest development the National Theatre is using. VR has become really popular in 2016 due to the ability to be in a completely different world and even move through it, looking all 360 degrees around you. This breakthrough was initially developed for game and movie improving, but as we see now, the British arts community is the leader in the way of testing this technology. Including everything from ballet to theatre performances, new results of the tests are successfully presented on different festivals around the globe.
Some VR experiences are simple backstage or rehearsal-room recordings — the 3D tech gives the headset wearer the impression of sitting right in the middle of, for instance, the Royal Opera’s rehearsals and 2016 performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, the Royal Ballet’s 2015 Nutcracker or the Philharmonia Orchestra playing the third movement of Sibelius’s Symphony No 5 at the Royal Festival Hall.
Other companies are experimenting with additional content. English National Ballet, for instance, is partnering with Sky Arts on a film inspired by Akram Khan’s Giselle, currently touring before a sold-out run at Sadler’s Wells in November. The accompanying two-minute VR piece features Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of ENB, who is also one of its principal dancers, with new choreo- graphy by Khan and music by Vincenzo Lamagna that exploits VR’s immersive nature. Rojo wafts slowly along the floor of a desolate factory with a 3D trail of light and dust drifting from her fingertips, leaving a ghostly gossamer web as she dances around you, as her lover, Albrecht, before ending up almost brushing your face and gazing into your eyes.
Perhaps surprisingly for a medium aimed at gaming, Rojo’s grace far outperforms most VR experiences. “Dance is ideally suited to VR — dancers think and move in three dimensions all the time,” she says. “When we’re dancing, we’re aware of the space, our own bodies and the other dancers, so what VR shows is what I have in my head anyway. Our performances in the round at the Albert Hall mean we’ve evolved to think of how our bodies look from every angle. VR is natural for us — it’s how we think. Any art form needs to develop with the arrival of new technology.”
To see Giselle, you need Sky’s VR app. Indeed, most VR content is either app- or platform-specific in some way. As a result, technology companies are involved in a bit of a VR land grab. This year has seen the launch of several pricy VR headsets aimed at home entertainment: the HTC Vive, the PlayStation VR, the Samsung Gear, the LG 360 VR, the Zeiss VR One and, the daddy of them all, the Oculus Rift, a crowdfunded start-up founded in 2012 and snapped up by Facebook in March 2014 for a very real $2bn. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has talked of expanding VR into politics, marketing and, of course, social networking.
Google, meanwhile, has gone the other way, with a headset made of cardboard that’s called, bless them, Cardboard. You paste it together, then slot a smartphone into the back and search YouTube for 360-degree or virtual-reality videos. In December, it launched Google Arts & Culture — another app, with VR content from about 1,000 museums and performing-arts institutions, including Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the Natural History Museum, where an in-house piece shows a sea-going rhomaleosaurus return to life as the room fills with water.
It’s the National Theatre, however, that has embraced the technology with the greatest verve. Perhaps inspired by his predecessor’s success with NT Live — which broadcasts stage productions to about 2,000 screens around the world, with an audience of 5.5m — the theatre’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, unveiled an Immersive Storytelling Studio in March 2015. It works in 12 areas, from documentary and verbatim performance to capturing existing shows in VR. Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel is an oral-history account of the 1916 rebellion, showing in the Lyttelton’s lounge right now.
Toby Coffey, head of digital development at the National, has been working with the National Film Board of Canada and various film festivals. He insists that live performers are an obvious VR vanguard: “When we shot Home | Aamir in Calais, the film-makers’ edit was six minutes, with 50-60 shots and cuts. Once the theatre team had worked on it, that became a 12-minute film with just 14 or 15 shots. VR is more about scene changes than cuts and edits. In theatre, you typically present the set, then performers drift into it. That’s proving the most appropriate form for VR.”
There’s one small hitch. These publicly funded bodies are pushing VR as a way of improving access and attracting younger audiences. Yet research by the consultancy Strategy Analytics suggests that just 3% of us will buy a headset this year. Unless, of course, we all want Tamara Rojo to dance with us.