Next year let’s all celebrate an augmented reality Christmas

It’s that time of year again. Christmas has come around and it’s time to deck the halls with all those decorations that have been gathering dust in the attic for the last year. Gordian tangles of fairy lights, baubles that may or may not have become cracked in the transition from tree to box and the motherlode of tree decorations of mysterious origin.

But before you get all wrapped up and frustrated in one of the more gloriously troublesome of Christmas traditions, let’s instead take a moment to look forward to how we may be making things festive in the future. In all likelihood, it will look fairly different and rather more virtual.

Augmented reality tech, if it can capture the same hype as virtual reality, is sure to steamroll the market in the next few years. Though Google Glass fell rather flat, the tech is coming along to overlay our reality with all the various aspects of the digital world. It seems to make perfect sense then that our future celebrations may not rely on physical aspects.

While we may be currently tied down by bulky headsets (even Microsoft’s untethered HoloLens seems pretty big to have on for long periods) Google Glass proved at least in concept that this won’t always be the case. Being bold, we might even say that you’ll have a svelte set of augmented reality glasses perched on your nose in just ten years.

Once a part of everyday life such devices will render precariously standing on a ladder to get those lights on your roof just right a thing of the past. Instead we imagine a more advanced form of geotagging, where you can design the way your house looks by pinning its location.

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To anyone strolling by without their glasses, it will look perfectly ordinary. But to those with an augmented reality device, the tech will respond to the location and display the exterior of the home just as lit up as you choose. From the simplest string of lights to the most elaborate of displays you can imagine, and all without having to lift a finger.

Once past the giant flashing Santa and assorted reindeer, your visitors will also get the chance  to embrace a more updated version of a long-standing tradition before crossing the threshold. Beneath the holographic mistletoe, they’ll have the chance to instantly capture and share the moment across social media.

Inside, the decorating continues. With smart enough GPS and what we assume to be some kind of design app, we imagine you simply telling the app that your house consists of X rooms and exteriors, and each of them can be decorated to suit refined tastes or fit out Santa’s Grotto.

This is fairly unlikely to come for free, but the in-app purchase of a fancier setup than the basic free package provided seems a fairly good deal for the loft space cleared up. Think of it kind of like The Sims, where if you want expanded options for decorating and designing your house you have to buy the expansion pack.

Of course, there are potential issues. If you thought your relatives could be judgemental before, wait until they see that you didn’t shell out for the Winter Wonderland package. You just know that Aunt Janice is going to be inquiring into your finances, tutting away at the lights of just one colour.

The problems only continue if you take into account that there may be older relatives who aren’t using an AR device. As far as they’re concerned, you just didn’t bother to decorate and are lacking in Christmas spirit. Bah humbug.

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We here at Factor have a couple of suggestions to clear these obstacles and smooth the way to your ideal festivities. As far as Aunt Janice is concerned, while you may not appreciate dressing and undressing your very own Winter Wonderland, if it keeps her off your back it may be that you can have physical decorations as well as digital ones.

More difficult is the issue of those who won’t or can’t adopt the augmented reality tech. While small hologram projectors would give them the same impression, it would rather defeat the purpose of everyone else bringing along their Google Glass, Hololens or whatever it is Magic Leap is working on.

One solution is to simply guilt them into getting on board by gifting them a set of the glasses. Those wishing for a less morally ambiguous resolution however, may prefer to think a little further forward to a Christmas hosted inside a smart home. Recognising each of your guests, your house may be able to personalise displays to suit each of their festive preferences.

Of course, there’s something to be said for pulling out the presents from under a real tree and feeling the irritation against your skin of real tinsel. There’s also something to be said for never having to sweep up pine needles again or work out just how you fit all the decorations in that one box.

However you choose to celebrate in the years to come, whether it be through a virtual lens or stacking up just as many lights as you possibly can on the outside of your house, Factor wishes you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Theatre has pretty much remained unchanged since the days of the ancient Greeks, but augmented and virtual reality could be about to change all that. We investigate how augmented reality technology is dragging one of Britain’s oldest and most beloved traditions into the future

Theatre has existed in some form or another for over 2000 years. Beginning as a festival celebration in ancient Athens it has grown and transformed into a worldwide, billion dollar industry. Now, as with every aspect of human life, technology is transforming what theatre can offer audiences.

Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company

Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company. Above: Image courtesy of The National Theatre

Despite funding cuts over the last few years theatre continues to thrive and innovate in the UK and with over fourteen million attendees walking through the doors of London’s West End in 2015, live drama and music can clearly still pull in a crowd. But audiences always want more and the increasing popularity of immersive theatre experiences like Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk productions demonstrates the public’s hunger for an interactive and autonomous role when they visit the theatre.

This is what directors, producers, writers and technicians have been trying to offer as they attempt to marry augmented reality technology with specially-trained actors and storytelling. Augmented reality encompasses a multitude of tech and involves supplementing the performance space with video, audio and graphics – all to enhance the audience’s experience.

Its creative uses have already been brought to fruition in British theatre. At the end of last year Rufus Norris’ reimagining of Alice in Wonderland – titled Wonder.land – and the ensuing exhibition at the National Theatre featured digital projections and virtual reality experiences that demonstrated the merging of our real and digital lives. Last month a live theatre experience called Dragon Matrix launched in Scotland, in which participants explore a woodland area and bring animated creatures to life by scanning markers with their smartphones.

Augmented reality in action

CoLab Theatre is a London-based theatre company that strives to offer their audience an autonomous and sometimes augmented experience in a city-based environment. CoLab’s director Bertie Watkins calls what they offer “pervasive theatre”. A step beyond immersive experiences and more commonly associated with gaming theory, it involves extending fiction into the real world (think PokemonGo).

We’re pretty much on our phone 24/7 and we use technology all the time as a lovely way of blurring that line between reality and fiction

In an interview with Factor, Watkins explained why using technology is the best way to combine physical and fictional worlds: “We’re pretty much on our phone 24/7 and we use technology all the time as a lovely way of blurring that line between reality and fiction. Changing your phone, which is usually just a communication device, to become a weapon or a hacking port or something like that is quite nice.”

This is what CoLab achieved in their show Fifth Column, a spy thriller which put the audience members in the centre of the action and had them running from bad guys through the streets of London. During the show audience members followed a digital trail across the city, accessing videos that contributed to the narrative and appeared to be part of the real world.

Watkins has fond memories of the show, but online reviews suggest that while the show was fun there were clearly logistical problems that came from using the augmented reality technology.

Disrupting the narrative

Watkins is very open about the struggles he faced running Fifth Column and how difficult it is to ensure the technological aspects of his productions work seamlessly alongside the live acting. One of the biggest issues he experienced was the combination of technology and human error.

“We get a huge, broad spectrum of people from 8 to 80 and from every sort of background, so we’re going to get people who like the sound of the technology but when it’s put in front of them they’re a bit like ‘argh!’” Watkins says. It seems that although the use of smartphones is as commonplace as using a light switch it isn’t always as simple.

Image courtesy of Bertie Watkins. Above: Image courtesy of The National Theatre

Image courtesy of Bertie Watkins

The CoLab team have also struggled with the variation of smartphones being used, they tested the app for Fifth Column on Android and iPhone but found people were still turning up with Blackberries or simply not updating their phones regularly enough, both of which caused  problems which disrupted the play.

This is likely to change though as the technology becomes even more widespread and as CoLab improve their software. “I think the more we work with actual software developers that can build bespoke things for us, the easier it will get,” adds Watkins. CoLab is looking into creating an app that will act as a wrap on smartphones, enabling the production team to use push notifications and stop interference from other apps.

Maintaining an engaging narrative throughout the show can also be a struggle, as the technology can often be distracting, but Watkins seems certain that it’s still possible to tell a good story and provide character nuance.

“It’s all about premise and how we can set up a narrative that people end up wanting to know, so we say they need to discover a secret. We try and make shows that people are inquisitive about what’s going to happen rather than playing so much that they end up not getting any narrative at all,” says Watkins.

Theatre and gaming

With the emergence of pervasive theatre, virtual reality and audiences becoming more involved in the physical act of performing, it seems that theatre is starting to merge with gaming. As technology improves and people want access to the next big thing will we begin to lose touch with traditional theatre?

Watkins doesn’t seem to think so, “I think we will end up moving into this world where the game world and theatre world are definitely going to cross over in audiences”.

I think we will end up moving into this world where the game world and theatre world are definitely going to cross over in audiences

He’s probably right; in recent years theatre has involved more audience participation and videogames have been steadily improving their storylines. Watkins hopes that what he and others are doing will create an entirely new genre of performance.

“I think there will be a blurring, but I think from that blur there will be an industry in itself. I don’t think one will swallow the other in any way,” says Watkins.

The theatrical world attracts an extremely dedicated fan base that thrives off the traditions and customs that encompass theatrical performance. It’s very likely that a large group of this community will struggle to accept the direction technology is taking theatre in.

If the sacking of Emma Rice from the position of Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is anything to go by the theatrical world is still battling between the call of progress and the tug of authenticity, so the adoption of augmented reality into theatrical traditions may be harder than first anticipated.

The future of theatre

For Watkins and many others the future of theatre is virtual reality. Instead of audiences experiencing a routine theatre production with certain aspects being enhanced by technology, the viewer will be plunged into an entirely fabricated world to experience the story first hand.

Watkins says that his next big project, due out next year, will be a virtual reality experience and that CoLab is already filming all of their current shows with a Bublecam to make them available for VR. The team at CoLab Theatre are also hoping to collaborate with Microsoft and use their Hololens in the future.

Watkins believes that virtual reality companies will continue to target theatre rather than cinema. “We’re skilled at perception and being able to get audiences to look in certain directions or follow narrative as you go along,” says Watkins. If this is true then money and research will surely expand the possibilities of what theatre companies like CoLab can create.

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For now audiences can look forward to augmented reality spilling out of the immersive scene and onto the boards. This month the most famous playwright in history is being treated to a tech overhaul, as the Royal Shakespeare Company launches its brand new version of The Tempest featuring a 3D hologram of the spirit Ariel.

The play will be performed at Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre; it seems that those crying out for traditional theatre to remain the norm will soon be confronted by the future, face-to-face.