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.

Gecko-inspired robotic gripper to clear up space junk

Researchers have developed a pioneering robotic gripper that uses gecko-inspired sticky pads to clear up space debris.

Developed at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and detailed today in the journal Science Robotics, the gripper has been tested both on the ground and on the International Space Station, demonstrating that it can successfully operate in zero-gravity environments.

With around 500,000 pieces of man-made debris littering orbit, there is a growing need to successfully clear much of it so that humanity can safely increase its operations in low-Earth orbit. Each piece of space junk is whizzing around at up to 17,500 miles per hour, meaning a collision with a satellite, spacecraft or even astronaut would be extremely expensive and potentially very dangerous.

However, many conventional junk removal methods don’t work particularly well. Suction cups rely on creating a difference in air pressure, meaning they don’t work in a vacuum; magnets only work on a limited number of materials and debris harpoons risk missing and knocking the objects off in unpredictable directions.

Sticky solutions, then are preferred, however most tape-like solutions fail because the chemicals they rely on to make them sticky can’t cope with the massive temperature changes objects in space are subjected to. Which is where the gecko-inspired gripper comes in.

The robotic gripper being tested on NASA’s low-gravity aircraft the Weightless Wonder. Image, video  and featured image courtesy of Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545 (2017)

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said study senior author Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Geckos are able to scale vertical surfaces because they have microscopic flaps that create weak intermolecular forces between the feet and the wall’s surface, allowing them to grip on. The researchers have simply replicated these flaps, albeit on a larger scale; while each flap on a gecko’s foot is around 200 nanometers long, on the robotic gripper it is only 40 micrometers across.

However, it works in the same way, allowing an object to be gripped in a zero-g environment without needing to apply force.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said study co-author Dr Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

A close-up of the prototype gripper. Image courtesy of Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The gripper has already undergone extensive testing, including in JPL’s Robodome, which has a floor like a giant air hockey table that is designed to simulate a 2D zero-G environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300kg robot.”

Now it has been tested on the International Space Station, the next step is to test a version outside the space station, in the radiation-filled reality of space. Cutkosky also plans to commercialise the gecko-inspired adhesive here on Earth.

Human lifespan “could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future”

Scientists researching human lifespan have concluded that it has no detectable limit, and that with advances in technology and medicine it could continue to climb for the foreseeable future.

“We just don’t know what the age limit might be,” said study co-author Siegfried Hekimi, a biologist from McGill University.

“In fact, by extending trend lines, we can show that maximum and average lifespans could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future.”

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature, analysed the lifespan of the longest-surviving people from Japan, France, the UK and the US every year from 1968 to the present day.

The scientists found that there was no evidence that a limit on lifespan exists, and concluded that if it does, we certainly have not yet reached it or even identified what it could be.

The research flies in the face of previous studies that concluded that not only was there a limit of 115 years, but that we were beginning to reach it. However Hekemi and his colleague Bryan G Hughes do not believe this is the case, and are unable to even hazard a guess as to what such a limit could be.

“It’s hard to guess,” Hekimi said. “Three hundred years ago, many people lived only short lives.

“If we would have told them that one day most humans might live up to 100, they would have said we were crazy.”

Images courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read

Average lifespans have jumped significantly over the past century. In 1920, Canadians had an average expectancy of 60 years, but by 1980 it had climbed to 76 years. Now it is 82 years, and is likely to climb further.

These jumps have been down to the revolution in medical science over the last hundred years, however advances in medical technologies could cause a significant further jump in our lifetimes.

In particular, work by organisations such as the SENS Research Foundation, led by noted gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, is focused on treating ageing as something that can be cured, and has seen growing support from the mainstream scientific community.

However, if such medical treatments do become available, they may only be available to those that can afford them, particularly in countries that do not have a single-payer healthcare system, such as the US. In these instances, there are fears that such treatments could divide humanity, with the rich gaining far longer lifespans than the poor.