Envisioning VR theatre: Virtual reality as an assistive technology in theatre performance

This research project focuses on exploring the potential artistic advancements provided by the inclusion and incorporation of Virtual Reality (VR) within theatre. The incorporation of VR technology into theatre performance ultimately aims to alter a theatre experience by adding spatial presence for audiences and adding new production considerations for theatre practitioners. This project investigated the conceptual nature and practical aspects of using 360-degree cameras placed on stage to enable virtual teleportation onto the stage from the audience or remote viewing. This thesis constitutes a PhD ‘with publication’ and includes reprints of quality assured peer reviewed scholarly articles produced at different stages on the project. The first study examines the early development and use of three-dimensional theatre prototyping to identify the technical requirements for VR theatre. A digital theatrical prototype was designed, along with mathematical calculations to determine the optimal placement of 360-degree cameras on stage. The study reveals multiple camera angles that can be utilized to capture a 360-degree/VR theatre experience. Building upon the findings of the first study, the second study focuses on practical and technical factors such as visibility, sound, lighting, and visual intensity to enhance audience access and proximity to live performances. Different camera positions were found to be suitable for different theatre styles. The study suggests that the application of VR technology in theatre stages can yield highly satisfying results, as reported by participating actors. Following initial prototyping and planning, the PhD then experienced the impact of COVID-19 that prevented planned collaboration with local theatre practitioners that would have enabled a substantive practical application of VR, technical refinements and, user and audience testing. However, in response to the impact of COVID-19 on the theatre industry, the third study investigated the use of virtually designed spaces and the inclusion of 3D avatars/characters or real actors in performances. It explores the creation of photorealistic virtual worlds that mimic real-world environments and examines audience perceptions of virtual theatre experiences. The study presents a modernization of theatre performance by incorporating 3D virtual spaces, akin to VR games, but with limited interactive freedom for the audience. The fourth and final study involved the development of a post-pandemic experimental theatre performance based on the insights and data collected from the previous studies. It focuses on the virtual teleportation of an audience onto the stage during a performance, facilitated by VR headsets and a 360-degree camera mounted on the actor. Within the experiment participants experienced the performance through VR headsets. The audience and theatre practitioners were then invited to participate in a post interview session, to note their feedback and comments regarding the experience. Despite the limited number of participants due to COVID-19 restrictions, the study highlighted the positive nature of the VR experience pointing to the possibilities for increased virtual access to live theatre beyond this research. Overall, the results of these studies shed light on key practical considerations involved in the integration of VR into theatre performances. The approaches taken in each study support and guide best practice but also opens up VR-assisted theatre to grass roots level community and local theatre so that VR can become a common consideration and tool for all forms of theatre.
The University of Waikato
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