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Augmenting Reality

06.28.11 | 5 Comments


CATEGORIES augmented reality, conversation starter, ideas, new technology, rabble rousing, technical work, the future

The other week, Theatre Communications Group held their annual conference. I always wanted to attend, but due to various restrictions, I’ve not had the opportunity. Happily, I discovered TCG live streaming many of their speakers, and two of the keynotes thus far heavily and unsurprisingly focused on social media, audience engagement and community dialogue. It’s the organization’s 50th anniversary, and appropriately they are taking a strong futurist vision of how American theatre might look in the next 50 years. This year’s directive centers on the hypothetical: What if…? In a small way, I was able to contribute to the conversation a couple months back when TCG invited me to imagine What if…Theatre Embraced Transmedia?

In the midst of his presentation, one of the keynote speakers, David Houle, a former television executive who advises companies†on forward thinking growth strategies, lightly touched on the seemingly futuristic concept of Augmented Reality (AR). Unlike Virtual Reality, which replaces the real world with a simulated environment, AR overlays or enhances the viewer’s perspective. If you’ve watched an American football game in the past couple years, you’ve experienced AR in the “virtual first down” markers superimposed onto the field. Two years ago, Yelp introduced Monocle, an AR feature that utilizes the iPhone camera to overlay information about a business onto it when pointing the camera at the building.

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Mr. Houle was very enthusiastic about the prospect of AR, but said he “didn’t know how you would use it in theatre.” Not being a theatre maker, it makes sense Mr. Houle wouldn’t immediately be able to picture the ways AR can integrate into theatre. This is, however, something I ponder often, and there are other theatre-makers embracing AR as a new tool for design in theatre. Travis Bedard and David J. Loehr have been talking about the storytelling potential of AR for theatre–and specifically the Layar mobile app–since the dawn of 2amt, for example.

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Recently, I enjoyed a developmental workshop by The Bengsons, a phenomenally talented married musical duo currently creating a new opera titled “The Proof.” The story concept alone is wonderfully original. A couple meets, falls in love, and soon after discovers the man has a terminal illness and will die in a year. The couple refuses to be cheated of the many years they’ll lose when he dies, so they lock themselves in an apartment and play out the 60 years they would have had over his final year. They celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and each other. It’s a moving, magical tale, and they chose to use technology to enhance that magic.

Still in early stages of development, The Bengsons are working with director Caitlin Sullivan and video designer/programmer Andrew Lazarow of Seattle theatre company The Satori Group to use infrared video capture and CGI to augment the audience’s experience. In one instance, they intend to take the performers faces and augment the reflections in a mirror to portray elderly versions of the couple. In another scenario, they capture two-dimensional images and project them as Matrix-like three-dimensional giants on the wall. The opera goes into extensive development this fall, and I cannot wait to see the end product.

To touch on a personal passion of mine, AR is a big part of transmedia storytelling. The gaming world is full of AR tech, and a great example is Parallel Kingdom, a mobile location-based multiplayer game using GPS to place the player in an alternate reality on top of the real world. Like many role-playing games, characters can level up, instant message with each other and trade food and goods. Another game allows players to virtually tag walls with graffiti. It utilizes the smart phone’s camera like Yelp’s Monocle to modify what the environment looks like.

Now, imagine a site-specific play living in a downtown post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. A smart phone app overlays fictional map locations onto Google maps, revealing the city of angels fifty years in the future. This map guides the audience to live performances. It costs thousands or millions of dollars to completely transform a city block in Los Angeles. Instead, the app uses the camera as a viewer that augments buildings to appear burnt out. Actors enter the frame, and voila – instant set!

The possibilities for using augmented reality are exciting. Have you heard of any theatre projects using AR? Might AR work into your creative vision for a project? For me, I have a feeling it’s going to play a big part in how I make theatre going forward.

James Carter

JAMES CARTER is a playwright & transmedia artist. He is a founding member of terraNOVA Collective and served as its associate artistic director for eight years. Playwright: FEEDER: A Love Story (HERE, NYC), Reaching Outpost (Kaneland High School, Elburn, IL), Baby Steps (The Lion, Theatre Row), and Family Wayward. Producer/Curator - Artists’ Night, dancelikeforever (CSNY), Baby Steps, Buck Fever (Blue Heron), terraNOVA’s soloNOVA Arts Festival (2004-2011), Subterranean (D-Lounge). Season Producer for The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 2007/2008 season, including: Lucy (William Carden, dir.), On The Way To Timbuktu (written & performed by Petronia Paley, Talvin Wilks, dir.), Thicker Than Water 2008 (Youngblood), Marathon 2008 (playwrights – Auburn, LaBute, Mac, Rivera) and Close Ties (Pamela Berlin, dir).

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  • It’s something we’ve been discussing almost since Layar first appeared on the scene.  The storytelling potential was immediately obvious, letting you design a story people could follow on the map, looking at buildings and sites and seeing video, hearing audio, reading text or a combination thereof.

    And whether it was a stand-alone project or tied to a production running on your theatre’s stage, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

    Imagine partnering with your theatre’s sponsors to bring customers through their doors in order to watch a part of an ongoing story they’d only see on-site. Maybe even design a show where viewing the stage through your mobile phone at certain times added detail, or “ghosts” not actually on the stage but affecting the action nonetheless.

    Those are just the tip of the iceberg…

    • I spoke with someone about doing “Harvey” and using devices to view Harvey. More conceptual than anything, but I’m sure someone will do something like that soon (if not already).

  • This is so intriguing.  The NYC based company 31 Down did a performance piece a couple of years ago that took you through lower Manhattan via pay phone.  You’d be given clues and call a number that would lead you to a small performance unveiling part of the story.  AR opens that way up.  More and more it seems that games and theater are going to be able to mesh for emotional impact and storytelling.

  • I’ve seen so much speculation about transmedia storytelling… but so few examples. The one you’ve described, with the couple in the apartment, sounds fascinating.

    • Just to be clear, “The Proof” isn’t a transmedia story (not that I know of). It’s an example of using AR in theatre. It’s a wonderful use of AR.

      There are few transmedia experiences centering on theatre so far, and I want to find ways to utilize many platforms to offer a thoughtful and transforming experience for the audience. “Sleep No More” has these elements, but it’s not transmedia either (some may debate me on this); however, in spirit of transmedia “Sleep No More” allows its audience members to engage with the story/event as they wish. Discover it in an organic fashion. Enter the narrative from multiple angles. Transmedia does this, too, but instead of storytelling in one location, people can enter the story through iPads, television, books and other media.

      I know some companies are writing grants this year for the first time using transmedia as foundation for their proposals. I wrote grants for transmedia in the past, and no one knew what I was I was talking about. The buzz word is slowly creeping into main stream, including the Producer’s Guild adding “Transmedia Producer” to its list of producing titles.


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