It's 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night in Ellicott City, Maryland and I'm in the mood for some comedy. The Ellicott Silly festival is in town and there are local comics all over the town entertaining people from all over the state. But at the Wine Bin down the street, projected on a 130-inch screen on the side of the parking lot, there's a comic in Los Angeles leaving a crowd of people in stitches. These people aren't watching a video of the physical comic, but instead the avatar of that comic rendered in the popular Microsoft-owned VR app AltSpace.
COVID-19 continues to disrupt the entertainment industry, forcing local performers to find alternatives to their standard venues. While many flocked to Zoom, others found VR apps offered a better way to engage with a live audience. And with many cities across the US supporting a return to live events, performers are looking for ways to incorporate these virtual audiences into the real world performances.
Like many performers over the last two years, comedian Tommy Sinbazo does not like performing over Zoom. "Everyone is in these little boxes, and it's impossible to see body language or mood. There's no mood to read, no way to interact," Sinbazo explained. And he's right, most Zoom performances force everyone to mute, so the performer gets no live reaction from the crowd outside of what's visible in the small grid of people on what is usually a small laptop screen a few feet away. It's a silent space, the opposite of what many performers need to shine.
Many found Zoom to be a necessary evil, especially if you wanted to reach a crowd of hundreds or more at a time, but there have been other options available from well before COVID-19. VR performances are nothing new, for years there have been efforts to make it fun to put on a headset and watch a boxing match or a live concert as though you were sitting in the audience. While those one-off spectacles get headlines, there have been weekly performances in VR apps for just as long. The AltSpaceVR channel created by comedian Kyle Render called Failed to Render is one such venue, opening weekly for attendees to come in and see comedians from all over the world.
"In many ways, it feels just like a normal comedy club," said Sinbazo. "There's a green room all of the comics sit in, and when they're called out on stage you move your avatar out to the floor and do your thing." The room from the perspective of the attendee is just like a club as well. You pick a spot for your avatar, and watch performers on the stage in front of you.
When a performer is on stage I could both hear them and respond when asked questions as part of the performance. The performer hears the laughter in nearly real-time, and because it's AltSpace there's an applause emoji you can use if you can't afford to cheer and shout. As Sinbazo explained in my call with him, a lot of people are entering these VR comedy clubs in their homes at 10 p.m. or later and as a result tend to whisper and giggle quietly. Because VR headset microphones are pretty good, a lot of these headsets are still audible for the performer.
A year into a pandemic with your only regular performances happening over VR means lots of artists now have new audiences. Like the performers, everyone who shows up at Failed to Render comes from all over. If they find a performer they like, it's easy to find them on social media. For comedians and musicians used to largely only performing locally, having two essentially separate audiences now is a new situation to be in. When Maryland started allowing safe performances in-person again, an opportunity presented itself to bring real-world and VR audiences together to enjoy the Failed to Render performers.
The setup for this hybrid VR comedy show was understandably confusing to in-person audiences at first. In a town with live comedy performances happening outside on every other street, this parking lot with a projector and a massive screen didn't look like the other events of the evening at all.
Being a Maryland local and a regular performer at Failed to Render, Tommy took over as the host for the evening and explained the situation to everyone. When he was talking to both audiences as the host, Tommy would put his Quest 2 on and grab a microphone. His VR avatar would take center stage, while the microphone would amplify his voice for the in-person audience to hear.
Tommy would invite a fellow comic on stage, and then take the headset off to enjoy the performance with the in-person crowd. The laptop connected to the projector acted as the camera in the VR comedy club, allowing everyone in the audience to see the performances the same way the folks in VR would.
It didn't take long for both audiences to warm up to this hybrid experience. By 10 minutes in, in fact, you wouldn't know this was the first time everyone involved had done something like this. The performers were able to interact with both the VR crowd and the real-world crowd with relative ease, and the audience roared with laughter as each of these funny people did their thing. By the time the second-to-last performer took the stage, this admittedly odd parking lot performance genuinely felt like a comedy club. Even the one technical failure, the battery on the Quest dying with the last performance, was brushed off as the same kind of glitch you'd see on a sound board anywhere else.
This may have been the first hybrid VR comedy show I've ever been to, and in fact most people have ever been to, but it won't be the last by any means. While a lot of the VR world is embroiled in a conversation about the future of the Metaverse and what it will mean to bring our physical selves into the digital world, I love this focus on showing real-world audiences what it's like to experience art in a digital space without yet asking them all to put a headset on. And, perhaps more important, it's great to know the line between a digital and physical performance doesn't have to exist in every situation.
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