Journey to parallel worlds
Now that the hype surrounding virtual reality has calmed down, the somewhat unrealistic and exaggerated expectations that it initially elicited have given way to more sober and practical ideas – in a positive sense – about the technology’ s potential and how it could be integrated into our media landscape in the future.
Virtual Reality (VR) is not only a tool for creating media design but is itself an independent artistic medium. An increasing number of museums are exploring the possibilities for VR use in exhibitions or as part of accompanying programmes.
At this point, however, every project is still a prototype and every project-developer still a pioneer. A clear trend can be observed towards taking users beyond the conventional role of observer to become part – or even the focus – of productions. This kind of project raises questions of how to approach the spatial “framing”, as the exhibition Mixed Realities in Kunstmuseum Stuttgart showed last year. Here, a range of questions were addressed, including: How can the virtual aspect be portrayed in the exhibition space? What impression do VR users make on onlookers while disconnected from their surroundings? Should they be protected, for instance, by being given a separate room? What could people see while waiting to use VR? And how could the installation appear when nobody is using VR?
In a joint project named “museum4punkt0”, various cultural institutions are currently seeking new ways of using modern technologies. A team from the German Emigration Center museum in Bremerhaven, for example, is exploring the emotional reach of virtual exhibits and whether empathy can be digitally conveyed. An exhibition about prisoners of war (“Kriegsgefangen. Ohnmacht. Sehnsucht. 1914-1921“) displays certain exhibits both in the original version and in a virtual version. The museum is also conducting a survey to find out whether the digital version of the exhibition makes a different impact on visitors from the analog version with the same content.
Virtual journeys to places that would otherwise not be accessible, or only to a very few, are among the narrative forms that are particularly suited to the technology. The Senckenberg Museum of natural history in Görlitz is one institution using it to explore the world at our feet, virtually shrinking visitors down to the size of woodlice. Other users are being flown out to archeological excavation sites on futuristic flying carpets, like the one I designed for the Emirate of Sharjah.
Today, it is possible to create a VR experience of a 360° film for over 400 users simultaneously, with relatively simple and inexpensive headsets. But if a project aims to allow users to see each other and interact within the virtual space, the number of possible participants drops and – as things currently stand – each one requires a complete VR system including a powerful computer. Multi-user experiences are especially complex to create and therefore considerably more costly than 360° films or applications. One alternative that is trending is enabling external audiences to participate and influence the VR experience by, for example, using conventional interfaces such as tablets.
All the above questions come together when VR meets theatre. Here we need to ask: How can VR be applied to artistic uses beyond the mere production of special effects? How can real and virtual spaces be blended? How can VR be turned from a solitary to a social experience? Under the name CyberRäuber (English: cyber-robbers) Marcel Karnapke and Björn Lengers work on precisely these issues and experiment with the use of VR on stage. Roland Schimmelpfennig’s “Die Biene im Kopf” (Theater an der Parkaue, Berlin) and “Der goldne Topf” at Theater Baden-Baden are current productions created with their help. In both productions, the actors use software in a virtual space to create a world of the stage – live – in the form of a projection surrounding the audience. This simultaneity of portrayal and viewing is one of the duo’s key fields of experimentation.
In the virtual theatre experience “Meet Juliet, Meet Romeo” (at DNT Weimar) the cyber-robbers took a different approach. Here, pairs of visitors were invited to explore a virtual museum full of sculptures and paintings and so experience Shakespeare’s tragic love story from various perspectives, in all its different facets. In this way, the visitors became protagonists themselves, experiencing the narrative either from Romeo’s or from Juliet’s perspective.
https://www.der-theaterverlag.de/Another group of VR pioneers investigating the impact of VR on audiences is Makropol, a Danish media, immersive, film and theatre studio. In a stage performance they developed titled “The Shared Individual”, the entire audience assumes the role of one single person on the stage, simultaneously and synchronously. Initially seeing themselves as individuals within a group in this new situation, audience members gradually let go of their own individuality to ultimately experience the performance as one merged entity.