Lifting the Curtain on Augmented Reality: How AR is bringing theatre into the future

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.

Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”