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.

Google’s Alphabet is Developing the Neighbourhood of the Future in Toronto

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has announced that Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation unit, will design a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. The neighbourhood, called Quayside, will prioritise, “environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity”.

The initial phase for the development, part of the broader Sidewalk Toronto project, has received a $50m commitment from Sidewalk, but is predicted to cost at least a billion dollars by the time it’s fully completion.

As part of the broader project, Quayside seems to be the first attempt at creating what Sidewalk refers to as a “new kind of mixed-use, complete community”, an attempt the company presumably hopes to eventually expand across the waterfront and ultimately into other cities.

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said on Tuesday.

Early concept images for the neighbourhood include self-driving cars and other infrastructure technologies. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Located in the primarily publicly-owned 800-acre area called Port Lands, Quayside looks to be the test bed for potential future community design. With the planning process for the development starting with a community town hall on the 1st of November, we are still some ways off from knowing just what the neighbourhood will look like, but early illustrations include bikeshares, apartment housing, bus lines and parks.

More importantly, however, is Doctoroff’s previous discussions of what he believes future city design will look like. Technology focused, there’s been mention of sensors that track energy usage, machine learning and using high-speed internet to improve urban environments.

Specifically, at a summit hosted by The Information last year, he mentioned “thinking about [a city] from the internet up”. As would be expected from a company under the same parent as Google, Sidewalk seems to be concentrated on development that prioritises innovation and building communities with an eye to how technology can help found neighbourhoods.

“I like to describe it that we’re in the very early stages of what I call the fourth revolution of urban technology,” Doctoroff previously told Business Insider.

“The first three were the steam engine, which brought through trains and factories that industrialized cities. The second was the electric grid, which made cities 24 hours, made them more vertical, made them easier to get around in with subways and streetcars.

“The third was the automobile, which forced us to really re-think the use of public space in order to protect people from the danger of the automobile. We’re now in the fourth one. We’ve had an urban technology revolution … We’re seeing a real change in the physical nature of our cities.”

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.