U.K. Artists Explore VR Technology’s Vast Potential

“I think that theater itself is virtual reality,” says Sarah Ellis, the director of digital development at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “As soon as we come into that space, we are immersed in another world, and we see things on a stage that were impossible in the real world that we left outside. And I don’t think that’s much different than how we look at virtual and augmented reality. It’s all about imagination.”

Ellis is the first person to ever have her title at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is indicative of its effort to explore how technology can be used to enhance and shape the theater experience. One such result was the recent production of The Tempest in which the company used motion capturing technology to project the actions of an actor into larger-than-life avatars in real time. It was similar to technology used in film to create sensory-based characters such as the Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, but this time the avatar was projected and animated live on stage rather than fleshed out later on a computer.

Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.

Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company isn’t the only British company exploring how to integrate art with virtual and augmented reality. The Royal Opera House and The National Theatre have also began exploring VR. Simon Mellor, deputy chief executive of Arts Council England, says that as virtual reality technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, interest is gathering momentum: “As people are beginning to experiment with it, they’re beginning to understand its potential, and it’s just the tipping point.”

Both Ellis and Mellor will participate in a SXSW panel called “Brave New World,” which will discuss this potential. Their panel is among several SXSW events highlighting British art and technology sponsored by Arts Council England and British Underground. Other programs include “A Colossal Wave”, an interactive and collaborative virtual reality experience included in the SXSW Art Program, and a virtual performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the Philharmonia Orchestra.

“In different ways, all the projects we’re bringing to SXSW do this interesting thing of combining the offline world and online world,” Mellor says. “ ‘A Colossal Wave’ is an interesting example of what starts with a very simple idea of people dropping a large ball onto a plate, but out of that rather simple visual and sonic idea is created a really extraordinary virtual reality world that people can experience.”

“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”

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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”

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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”

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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”

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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”

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“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
“Voice fruit” generated by the VR art installation: “A Colossal Wave”
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Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.
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Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.
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Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.
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Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.
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Students taking part in Punchdrunk's The Oracles education project. Photo by Paul Cochrane.
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Mellor says being able to get artists’ work in front of international companies and explore possible collaborations is an important goal for Arts Council England, which works to develop and advocate for the arts in Britain. “That’s quite important at a time when in the U.K., public funding for arts and culture are under quite a lot of pressure,” Mellor says. “So how will we equip organizations and creatives to help them begin to negotiate potentially commercial partnership building on some of the new content their creating in immersive technology?” That’s one of the many questions Mellor, who will moderate the discussion with Ellis and other leaders of the virtual reality “momentum” in Britain, wants to explore.

For Ellis, working with any new technology comes with questions and challenges, and artists need to be in the right mindset as they explore virtual reality. “There’s something important to say about the ‘brave,’ the courage and being brave in this space,” Ellis says about the name of her SXSW panel. “It’s not always about the answers and the solutions, it’s about being brave and taking risks, because I think when you take risks in that space, that’s when you get the unexpected and the unimaginable.”

“Brave New World” is on Tuesday, March 13 at 12:30pm in Salon 1-2 at the JW Marriott (110 E. 2nd St). “A Colossal Wave” is located on Third Floor Palazzo of the Austin Convention Center. Beethoven’s Fifth screens as part of the Virtual Cinema program: Tuesday-Thursday from 11am-6pm in Salon 5-6 at the JW Marriott.

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