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Wearable Tech

The Princess Bride performed live -- in a VR app

As Inigo Montoya might say: Prepare to die, virtually.

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Actors learned to sword-fight in VR. Here, Westley duels with Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen, as Princess Buttercup looks on. 

Rec Room

Cue the preshow jitters.

Shaun Hansen looked out at the audience that gathered to watch a stage adaptation of The Princess Bride, featuring him as the male lead, Westley -- you know, Cary Elwes' role in the 1987 cult classic.

Hansen, 36, of Denver, took a few deep breaths before the curtain rose. He'd been preparing for this a long time. The nerves were for naught. The audience laughed and applauded throughout the 82-minute production, put on by the Orange Bucket Acting Troupe.

This was no ordinary amateur theater production staged in a borrowed middle school gym. The curtain, for example, was virtual. The performance itself took place in Rec Room, a free VR app from developer Against Gravity. The app lets people enter virtual spaces as avatars, where they play paintball, dodgeball and disc golf while strapped into VR headsets. The Orange Bucket Acting Troupe -- 12 cast and crew members from around the world -- pulled off what's likely the first full-length play performed in VR.  

"I had a huge grin on my face the whole time," Hansen said of the first of four performances that ran in late September and early October. "It's a good thing I was in VR because it would've been really hard to keep a straight face."

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VR isn't new technology. But it's only been in the past five years or so that it finally started to catch up to the dream of creating immersive environments, from virtual history lessons to stage productions. Emphasis on the word "started," since there's still a long way to go before we can pop into something completely convincing like Star Trek's holodeck. Rec Room, for instance, is bright and cartoonlike. Avatars' heads float above torsos. Heck, there aren't even legs. And somehow it's not disturbing.

Your average Joe isn't exactly rushing home every night to put on goggles and spend the evening in virtual worlds. Even so, folks like the Orange Bucket Acting Troupe are sold on what VR can already deliver.

As you wish

Matthew Moffett admits he wanted to hang out with the cool kids -- specifically, a group of Rec Room users who plan events in the app like cocktail parties and dance parties.

There will always be cool kids, even in VR.

Moffett, a 27-year-old biochemist turned computer programmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, doesn't have a theater background. But he did take a screenwriting class in college and was cinematographer for a 2013 indie film called Asleep in a Storm. He started thinking about using the Rec Room app's rehearsal space to put on a play.

He had another reason too: "It's just fun."

The result was a modified version of The Princess Bride that he spent weeks trimming, rewriting and bolstering with inside humor and Rec Room references.

For the unfamiliar, The Princess Bride is a comedic fantasy movie starring Elwes, Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin, based on the book and screenplay by William Goldman, who died last week.

Moffett and co-director Emily Herring, 20, of Scottsdale, Arizona, held auditions, even putting up posters in Rec Room's virtual common spaces.

When folks like Hansen (who also became a co-director) auditioned, they found it wasn't all that different from auditions in the real world. There was a script, a few chairs and some on-the-spot directing.

A year's worth of rehearsals later, they were ready for the stage.

An inconceivable production

In Rec Room, the performance space looks like a high school auditorium: beige walls, rows of blue seats, a stage, a red curtain, speakers and lights mounted on the ceiling. The floor looks like it's made of wood slats. There's a spotlight aimed at the curtain.

When the show starts, Herring asks the crowd to be courteous to the performers and for patience in case of technical difficulties.

The play includes sword fighting, wall climbing and even some smooching -- much to the chagrin of the granddaughter home sick with the flu (think Fred Savage's character in the movie, but cast with a female actor).

The audience snickered and giggled to Moffett's Rec Room-specific jokes.

Word had gotten out by the time the Orange Bucket Acting Troupe performed its fourth and final show. They had 130 folks sign up to see the play.

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The view from the wings of the stage during The Princess Bride. 

Rec Room

Over the course of the previous year, developers at Against Gravity had rolled out updates that enabled the group to do simple but crucial things, like raising a curtain and changing costumes. New outfit slots, for example, allowed avatars to switch costumes on the spot and play multiple roles. Updates also made it easier for them to change scenes. Another feature, called gizmos, let the actors move and push around scenery and furniture -- a huge improvement over having to ask the audience to move to a different room for each scene. That update, along with the addition of the classic red curtain, meant they needed only three room changes, instead of a dozen.

"What we wanted to do was way too ambitious for what was available. But it grew to what we needed as we went," said Tony Robinson, 35, another co-director of the production. He tackled technical challenges, like figuring out ways to rig the sound so that the actors' voices carried into the audience, and building automaton guards and other background characters, so they wouldn't have to cast additional people.

Then there was the question of how to act when you're an avatar.

In Rec Room, avatars are essentially heads, torsos and hands that move according to the sensors on the player's headset and controllers. Facial expressions are limited.

"You have to be really conscious of how you're moving. And then a lot of it is in your voice, of course," said Tamara Hughes, an actor who's also community manager for Rec Room. "It's actually surprising how much you can get just using your hands."

Shakespeare said all the world's a stage. All of Rec Room is code and pixels.

It doesn't matter. In real life and in VR, the play's the thing. 

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