VR has been around for a long time, and many different industries have adopted it as a tool. As it’s made its way into the performing arts space, theater has used it to enhance what’s being presented onstage. Thus, a whole new branch of theater has emerged, with a very different audience experience from ‘typical,’ non-VR enhanced productions. How does this new form of engaging with theater change the audience’s experience? Are audiences more engaged, or more impacted by what they experience in VR than what they would see in a typical theater setting?
Virtual reality, or VR, creates a simulated environment where the user is immersed in a reality other than their own. They can interact with this artificial 3D environment, and in current VR experiences the environment adjusts to the user’s movement to visually change, just like perception changes in real life when looking in different directions or moving around.
Although commonly thought of as a 21st-century invention, VR can be traced back to 1838 when Sir Charles Wheatstone created a stereoscope, using mirrors to create a 3D viewing experience.
VR is most often presented with goggles the user wears to be immersed in the simulated environment. These range from cardboard models used in tandem with a smartphone, to large headsets that contain speakers for additional auditory immersion. Many are used with some kind of gloves or hand controllers so hand movements are captured in addition to head movements. The Oculus 2 headset, by Meta (formerly Facebook), was the bestselling VR headset in 2020.
VR has many applications in a variety of fields. Video games is one of the most popular applications, putting gamers in the middle of the action. Training is another use case–Walmart famously uses VR to train its HR Associates, as it provides a hands-on experience instead of learning something by reading. It has also found a place in therapy as PTSD patients use VR as a form of exposure therapy. The arts have more recently leveraged VR as a tool to enhance their practice.
PRECURSOR: IMMERSIVE THEATER
Before VR made it to the theater world, immersive theater gained popularity over the past decade with productions like Sleep No More (Punchdrunk Theater) leading the charge. Immersive theater brings the audience into the action; instead of being distanced from actors and sets by a divide between stage and seats, the production is taking place around the audience with no distance barrier. This immersive experience helps introduce more sensory experiences for the audience, with senses of “real space,” time, and movement. By having more senses activated, audiences are more engaged and have stronger ties to what they’re experiencing.
There is also an element of engaging directly with actors in the immersive theater space. In a typical theater setting, an audience member is sitting and watching a stage, akin to watching a screen. There is no direct human interaction, just human perception. When immersion is layered on and an audience member can interact with an actor, even talk to them in many cases, their human hardwiring for social interaction is activated, and the experience becomes more intimate and engaging. Instead of narrowing an audience’s world to what’s onstage, this expands their worlds by layering elements on top of it.
Immersive theater is successful in heightening audience experience without the assistance of VR. However, VR amps up the engagement and emotion to bring the benefits of immersion to the next level.
VR IMMERSION & EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
VR brings immersive theater to the next level–not only is the audience surrounded by what’s happening in the production, VR makes it so they are completely immersed into a different reality and POV. Audiences can get completely lost in the narrative because they are 100% immersed, and not experiencing distractions that could take them out of the present.
There is little to tell the audience they’re actually just in a theater venue or home on their couch. This effectively transports the audience and contributes to what’s referred to as a “place illusion,” where the audience feels like they’re actually experiencing a situation, despite knowing they put on VR goggles and aren’t really in that situation. This creates sensory perceptions and bodily memories that would happen as if the audience member was truly in the physical environment, prompting a new level of understanding and empathy for a situation other than their present reality.
Several studies have measured how audiences emotionally react to VR theatre experiences versus non-VR theater. While non-VR theater typically elicits some kind of emotional response from the audience, when the audience is experiencing theater in VR emotions, they experience more “tangible and personal” emotions from their close proximity to the production.
He et al. presented test subjects with two theater experiences: one filmed in 2D to simulate viewing a stage from a typical seat in the audience, and one of the same subject matter presented in VR. The study, which measured emotional response with surveys as well as EEG measurements, found that VR led to a higher sense of presence, higher engagement, and higher emotional response (both self-reported and physiologically-measured) versus the 2D experience. Tian et al. ran a similar study between 2D and VR stimuli and came to the same conclusion that physiologically-measured emotional arousal was higher in VR.
Interestingly, the effects of VR may be more of a subconscious impact than audiences realize – a study by Pozharliev et al. found that while test subjects did not self-report a heightened emotional response to VR advertising versus non-VR advertising, physiological measures like EEG did indicate heightened emotional arousal. So, even if audiences don’t consciously feel like a VR theater experience is impacting them differently than a non-VR experience, their brain is likely responding differently.
Notably, these studies did not present an interactive VR experience where the audience members could interact live with others; instead audiences interacted with a 360-degree pre-filmed world. Layering on direct interaction has even more implications for the audience.
VR IMMERSION WITH INTERACTIVITY
VR can make audiences part of the production itself, interacting with actors and helping to shape the show. Theater is typically a passive experience for the audience, in that they’re just watching. As a participant, they’re not only consuming the art but making it alongside actors and those behind the scenes. This enables a more communal theater experience, which is said to help contribute to the emotional catharsis that’s a large part of the goal of dramatic narrative.
The Under Presents have presented several VR theater experiences (one featured in the above video), and their actors have reported that they are able to respond to audience cues, like body language, that they would not be able to pick up on when distanced from the audience in typical theater setting. The actors adapt their acting live as a response, meaning the audience truly impacts the production. No passive viewing in site.
VR THEATER & EMPATHY
In addition to heightened emotional response, VR can enhance the empathetic response of audiences. Empathy is one of the often-touted benefits of theater–audience members can empathize with characters onstage, often seeing and understanding viewpoints and experiences other than their own. Theater can open audiences’ eyes to new perspectives.
VR can bring this to the next level, thanks to the total immersion. Being up close and personal with characters, sometimes even perceiving the production from the point of view of the character, helps form a more empathetic bond with the work being presented.
Cristofi et al. aggregated many surveys focusing on VR and highlighted the finding that VR experiences enable “perspective taking,” a psychological driver of empathy where someone perceives a situation from the perception of someone else. The studies provide support that this does enhance audiences’ empathetic responses and, in specific applications, reduces prejudice towards stigmatized groups.
In practice, this seems to be the case. At NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Drama program, students are collaborating in VR. Students participating highlight their experience that as an audience member, you’re truly experiencing a situation like a character is, leading to stronger empathy than in a non-VR setting.
However, scientific findings are still emerging as VR becomes more popular. In 2021, a meta-analysis of all known studies on empathy in VR provided support that while VR enhances empathetic response, it’s limited to emotional empathy. Meaning users can feel compassion towards others’ points of view, but VR is not enabling users to truly imagine others’ perspectives (which would then elevate the experience to cognitive empathy) more so than non-VR applications do. The research points to the need of imagination to more actively construct and understand another’s experience, which can be done with active engagement, such as talking to others in the immersive experience.
The use of VR is still in its early stages, especially with theater applications. VR remains a cool new technology that draws in audiences with its novelty, especially as presenters seek to upgrade the at-home theater experience thanks to COVID-19, but it can achieve more than just novelty.
We know that theater is an important tool in our world for looking at society under a lens and understanding different perspectives, and there is evidence to suggest that VR can help theater do this more effectively. Science points to the importance of active interaction to engage with the VR theater world, as is done by The Under Presents in their work, with University of Iowa as another example (featured above). Maybe it won’t achieve critical mass in the theater industry, but growing experimentation with it suggests it’s here to stay. It’s up to us to keep innovating with the new capabilities VR can provide.
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