Virtual Reality for Theater: Engaging narrative in VR

A VR based pre-show experience for an upcoming theater musical - The Next Fairytale


Overview

Problem

To create a narrative and theater based experience in Virtual Reality

Solution

Created a VR narrative based game that guides the player through an emotional journey and helps them empathize with the characters in the play - The Next FairyTale. This VR experience explores a traumatic event in the antagonist’s backstory, allowing the audience to interact with characters from the musical.

Project Duration

This was a 6 month project from January 2018 to June 2018.

My Role

The team comprised of 8 people with designers, developers, producers, and artists. We were mentored by the Apples and Oranges studio, Tim Kashani and Zach Anderson, and by our professor, Josh Tanenbaum. We later collaborated with script writers and voice artists. My role was as a concept designer and developer.

Design Process

Why Theater based VR?

Theater plays a fundamental role in showing diverse stories, entertaining audiences, providing culturally rich experiences, and connecting audiences and actors emotionally. We believe that combining theater with emerging technology can help individuals connect with theatrical plays in stand alone experiences and can also help the theater industry by providing them a platform for pre-show experiences for broadcasting their upcoming plays

Team Process

We started by analyzing products that presented theater in VR and understood the limitations. After receiving the play's script, we had multiple brainstorming sessions. We evaluated our ideas with the help of our mentors and iterated through brainstorming and evaluation sessions until we reached our final product.


Existing Products

After studying current solutions such as cirque de soleil and the circle of life, we found that within this niche area, most solutions target a 360 view of the play. On further discussions, we felt that these solutions did not capture the core essence of theater - connecting the audience emotionally with the actors and the story. Hence, we decided to create a solutions that could individually engage one person in VR at an empathetic level with the narrative.


Challenges

The first challenge that we encountered was stepping into a filed that had not been well explored. We also thought that VR may subvert the lively vibe of the troupe and venue. This led us to think how we could engage the VR player and enable them to become a part of the play, giving them an interactive theatrical experience. We then studied the different levels of interaction that the audience and the viewers could achieve.

Initial Design

We first explored how the audience could view the play from different character perspectives, giving them the ability to warp in and out of any actor's frame of view. We realized that this concept did not encourage and empathetic connection between the audience and the actor. We then moved on to other different storyboards


Storyboards based on Interactivity

After numerous iterations, we came up with four key ideas. In all these ideas we saw a common theme emerge - the concept of a character's space that the player would enter. In concept 1, the player would enter a character's 'the mirror's' house and see the play along with the mirror, where the house would react to the play. In concept 2, players would be asked to choose a costume and dress up as a character to replace a missing actor in the play. They would then be introduces to the back stories of characters before going through the play. Concept 3 was about performing situated tasks along with the characters and concept 4 used theories of back-leading and audience engagement. Using these ideas, we came up with out final concept.


Final concept

Goal
For our final concept, we went back to our goal - To help the player develop an empathetic connection with the character.

Story
We decided to present the back story of the antagonist, 'Minerva', to help the audience empathize with her reasoning and decisions. Minerva is the queen of all fairy god mothers. In the pre-show VR experience, players take the role of Minerva's sister 'Calliope', as she tries to convince Minerva to marry the love of her life. Minerva is duty bound and stubborn on sacrificing her love for the realm of the kingdom.

Setting
This interaction takes place in a forest glade giving a magical effect, to keep the theme of the play




Transform
To help readers take the role of Calliope, they are positioned in front of the magical mirror. Here Calliope transforms from her commoner disguise into her natural queen from. This transformation aims to aid players into taking Calliope's identity, as they can see their actions being reflected in the mirror.




Emotions
The main interaction of the players is to guide the emotional tone of the conversation by using emotional spells - happy, calm, sad, and angry. These spells do not change the underlying content of the dialog, rather they only present the dialog through varying emotional settings. As Calliope, players tap different emotional spells to change the atmosphere of the conversation. Minerva's appearance also changes in response to the spells, as shown in the images below.




Theory
We used concepts of back leading in theater and non verbal digital communication



Art
A voxel artist joined our team to develop the art work



Development
We worked on a sprint based development cycle to make the application in 9 weeks.

Showcase

The final product was shown and played by people in our year end showcase. We learned that people enjoyed the experience and the art work but wanted a more action centric experience. they desired to carry out more actions rather than being limited to selecting spells. Hence, our next challenge is to address different forms of interaction, while maintaining a strong theatrical basis.