Theatre meets Virtual Reality

New R&D project from immersive content studio Megaverse partnering with National Youth Theatre and Sheffield Hallam University to unveil a global VR first, live streaming performers directly into a virtual reality theatre space

The Megaverse XR Theatre Lab (MXRTL) is an R&D project from Ben Carlin at immersive content studio Megaverse and Producer Natalie Hall, collaborating with National Youth Theatre and Sheffield Hallam University and supported by Arts Council England, that explores how to extend the corporeal immediacy and humanity of live performance through Virtual and Extended Reality.  

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MXRTL will construct a low-cost, portable scanning rig that can 3D capture live performances “in the round” using an array of calibrated depth-sensing cameras. Unlike traditional motion capture, these performances can be live-streamed into a virtual set and experienced through multiple networked virtual reality headsets repurposing existing gaming technology experienced live in any space through augmented reality on a smart mobile device.

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Ben Carlin, Co-Founder, Megaverse, says; “I want us to push the limits of what a theatre experience can mean both to the makers and audiences alike. We already know how incredible virtual reality can be – how it can make you feel ‘present’ in another world but when you combine this with the visceral feel of a raw emotional performance, this is where we are on the edge of something truly unique. The XR Theatre Lab is about artists and technologists working together to fuse their skills into this new art form.”

Natalie Hall, Producer, says; “This is really about enabling live performing artists to create extended reality work in an integrated, platform-native way. There’s so much to explore, but that work can’t happen until XR technology is developed for and with artists in a way that’s flexible and financially accessible. That’s what we’re trying to do here.” 

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The bespoke rig, which will be tested with three groups of creatives, will allow artists to create, devise, and push the boundaries of alternate reality theatre. The creative potential of the rig includes global promenade theatre, virtually porting audience members into the middle of a scene or gathering live audiences from multiple countries for communal arts experiences. 

The three groupings for test sessions will include:

-Engaging with local Sheffield artists and members of the Sheffield Culture Consortium to creatively test and play with the rig while introducing them to the technology and creative potential of using XR

-Partnering with Sheffield Hallam University to upskill students on XR technology engage academics and push the creative limits of the rig.

-Devising a series of short workshop theatre pieces with the National Youth Theatre which will be exploring emotional v. artificial intelligence. A small tester audience will be invited including members of the public university funders and Sheffield Cultural Consortium.

MXRTL will be working with ten young actors from the National Youth Theatre across a week, to test and create three scratch performances, three innovative ideas of how they could play with the immediacy of a virtual environment.

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Sean Hollands, Director and Theatre-maker, National Youth Theatre, says; “What’s so exciting about this project is the possibilities it opens for accessibility, and it’s potential to bring in a new type of young theatre audiences. There are companies in the past who have used VR within their theatrical productions and often to incredible effect. However, this project is allowing us to use VR in a way that hasn’t been done before. We will be able to live stream performers directly into a live virtual reality theatre space.”

“What I have always struggled with inside VR experiences is that they are pre-made, in the sense that things often happen ‘at’ you,” Sean continues. “You have the agency of where to look, or maybe even pick things up, or you may be able to choose a narrative path. But by being live, we can actively respond to our audience, not just drag them along.”

“Sheffield Hallam University has been experimenting in the world of VR, with both students and academics curating and producing work in this area for research, industry and also client work,” says Anne Doncaster, Senior Lecturer in Digital Media Production, Sheffield Hallam University. “The opening of our designated VR lab last year has fuelled further interest in this emerging technology. The current project will enable collaboration with arts organisations, artists, students, and makers in an iterative and exploratory process, therefore offering opportunities for students and academics to benefit from the experimentation and findings/feedback of using this technology throughout the course of the project. The aim is to harness the unique strengths of live performance and investigate how these qualities can be exploited within immersive technology.”

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