My first experience of Virtual Reality was in a pub in Brighton. One minute it was all Prosecco and platters of fromage, the next I was plunged into the 19th century: stumbling around a musty, cobwebbed laboratory, fending off some kind of squawking raven and trying not to draw the attention of the sinister, faceless figure lurking on my peripheral vision.
Where the hell was I? As it happens, I was inside the trailer for a Jack the Ripper Virtual Reality video game. This was classic VR territory, aimed at pimply-faced youths who like smashing it up in their bedrooms. I am a firm “no” when it comes to shooting 19th century serial killers but I did relish the chance to visit another world entirely, in totally immersive depth. While some might have been paying closer attention to the Ripper, I was focusing more on the vast array of props, the crashing crockery, the specimen jars, the tools of a nefarious trade. I was bewitched me by these extraordinarily vivid sets, the binaural sounds, the 3D-ness of it all.
I swiftly realized that, with headset on, I could be absolutely anywhere, doing anything I wanted. OK, for now, it was Gothic horror, but I could be walking on the moon, swimming with dolphins, gliding through an enchanted forest – in fact, gracing any imagined or real world.
Transfixed in Ripper-land, I stumbled on. The narrative took a turn for the worst, tipping me out of a window and down into a sinister alleyway. The raven croaked, a rat scurried along the cobblestones at my feet and dark buildings towered above me. It felt utterly compelling and utterly real.
Watching people when they’re in a VR world is entertaining in itself; staggering around, arms outstretched, heads swiveling wildly – the VR practitioner might be fully immersed, but to anyone watching, you just look drunk.
Wherever you are though, you are really right in there, and insensible to everything else. This rings alarm bells of course – how oblivious do we want to be, or want our children to be? With parents already worrying about the amount of time their offspring spend glued to video games or social media, how much worse will it be if kids are all but uncontactable as they navigate around a separate universe?
These are understandable concerns but, for me, the exciting possibilities of Virtual Reality technology far outweigh any negatives. VR may have cut its teeth in video games, but its rapid expansion into other areas is exhilarating – from medicine and education to the arts and entertainment, VR has the potential to enhance lives in so many ways.
For those who are disabled, VR will provide opportunities to enjoy sensations, experiences and journeys that would otherwise be totally impossible. VR can also benefit people dealing with conditions like acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia and even depression, helping people re-engage with the world and be stimulated by it.
In the Performing Arts sector, VR potential is only just beginning to be fully explored and The Old Market – with its celebrated #TOMtech season(August 29-October 10) – is leading the way at a national level. Through labs, workshops, talks and performances, #Tomtech is bringing theatre makers, directors, dancers, choreographers and techies together to investigate the medium. What is possible with VR? Is it just gimmicky to incorporate VR in a live production, or does it really enhance and add value to the audience experience? Can VR help theatre makers tell stories in new ways? And who wears the headset – performers or audience?
A few weeks after my trip to Ripper-land, my flatmate acquired a Google VR cardboard headset and we tried out a bunch of free apps in the kitchen. This was VR at its very worst; low-grade headset, wrong kind of smartphone, free videos. Stumbling around the kitchen table, we took turns exploring out-of-focus Arctic landscapes and scuba-diving with out-of-focus sharks. Quality varies enormously in VR and watching cheap productions through a cardboard headset is NOT the way to have a great experience. But with quality kit and high production values, you are fully immersed within a full 360º, 3D simulation of an invented or real space. You can walk all around it, see it from all angles – and even interact directly with props and characters.
In almost all VR experiences, you – the headset wearer – are the protagonist. You might be in a game, in a story or just wandering around a landscape, but you do play a role, you make choices about what to look at next, no user experience will be the same.
“This is perhaps what intrigues theatre makers the most, giving them the chance
to take interactivity with their audience to a whole new level.”
Luckily, not long after my kitchen cardboard experience, the debut #TOMtech season came along to save me from VR disillusionment. Forming part of Brighton Digital Festival, #TOMtech really set the bar high with an innovative and bustling programme that included vrLAB – a four-day event featuring 20 different virtual reality experiences. The two I tried last year were Slave To Mortal Rage (by CiRCA69) – a clue-driven play which turned a tiny room in The Old Market basement into a futuristic high-rise apartment – and the VR app TiltBrush, set up in a corner of the bar. The latter was awesome – painting neon signs in 3D is quite a trip.
Last year’s #TOMtech was an instant sell-out and many people had to be turned away. This year, #TOMtech is upping its game: there’s more sessions on offer and, for those of us lucky enough to live locally, the chance to partake in a veritable VR banquet for a wonderful six weeks starting August 29.
If you’ve never tried Virtual Reality before, you’re in for one hell of a ride! Start your journey with Habitats from Marshmallow Laser Feast and Sussex Wildlife Trust (August 29 – September 10), then dive deep in to the sea with Frogman (Sept 5-9,) and into the unconscious with Whist (Sept 19/20). vrLAB, which sold out last year, runs September 21-24 will be a bigger and better version of last year’s debut with some 30+ experiences on offer.
Virtual Reality might be how teenage boys get their kicks, but it’s a joy for the rest of us as well – and #TOMtech gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore its myriad possibilities.