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Oculus wants to make immersive virtual theater a reality

Oculus is inventing a new kind of VR experience, coming next year, that brings a virtual play with live actors into your home. Could it be the hit VR's been waiting for?

James Martin/CNET

Scattered around Earth, you and other audience members slip on VR headsets and convene in a common virtual world. As you explore, you're approached by a character different from avatars you've met in VR before. It reacts to you like somebody in the same room would, but this isn't a creature of our world. It's sewn together by the same threads as the rest of this invented universe unspooling around you. And by following it, you unlock the possibility of a unique journey.  

Rather than preprogrammed avatars, these characters are all powered by live, trained actors. Far away on a motion-capture stage, a cast leads you and others through a performance that's never exactly the same story twice.

Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Facebook's VR giant, Oculus, describes it as indie video game phenom Journey meets immersive play Sleep No More. The project, tentatively expected for release next year, is inventing a new VR format that attempts to widen the audience for some of today's most exciting VR experiences -- installations with live actors.

A VR scene inspired by the Pixar movie Coco.

As executive producer of experiences at Oculus, Rachitsky also helped produce Pixar's first virtual reality experience, based on the movie Coco. 

James Martin/CNET

"We're really interested in, how do you create that experience of live actors without needing to be in a site-specific location," Rachitsky said in an interview this month ahead of the Tribeca Film Festival. "It's a way to scale."

The idea of VR as immersive theater is the latest twist on one of technology's buzziest trends, attracting giant investments by heavyweights like Google and Facebook, the latter of which is expected to showcase its new virtual reality hardware at its F8 developer conference on Tuesday. Despite the hype, widespread adoption of VR has been elusive. Without a gotta-see-it experience compelling them to try the unfamiliar format, consumers have resisted pouring hundreds of dollars into a souped-up computer and a high-end headset like Facebook's Oculus Rift.

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But Oculus' experimental immersive play, even at this early stage, mixes together some promising ingredients: It builds upon a trend of theater converging with VR that's spurring some of VR's most exciting experiences, and it could piggyback on the booming popularity with immersive theater.

Immersive reality

Immersive theater has grown as a trend over the last five years, kickstarted by the success of Sleep No More, an elaborate film-noir-style riff on Shakespeare's Macbeth that allows audience members to explore and chase live actors through a three-warehouse set. The production by Punchdrunk Theater Company continues to run in New York City seven years after its debut.

Other immersive theater companies have gained acclaim. Third Rail Theater Company's Then She Fell, an interpretation of Alice in Wonderland set in a Victorian asylum, has been performed in a former outpatient hospital in Brooklyn since 2013. Last year, its Ghost Light was performed at Lincoln Center in backstage corridors and dressing rooms.

drawmeclose.jpg

In Draw Me Close, an actor in a  motion-capture suit embraces a viewer experiencing the interaction in VR. 

Ron Antonelli for NFB and National Theatre

As they've grown in popularity, immersive theater and escape rooms have focused on exploring ways to transport audiences into storytelling in the real world. In VR, immersive theater could attempt the same without a physical set.

The blurring between theater and VR has already begun.

Earlier this year, Third Rail ventured into virtual reality, contributing to Wolves in the Walls, an experience that was also under Rachitsky's wing at Oculus. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

And VR performances in real spaces with actors already exist, too, like Jack: Part One by Baobob Studios, and Draw Me Close, a coproduction between the National Theater and the National Film Board of Canada. Using motion-tracking in a space that's mapped onto a live performance area, audience and performers interact together as in immersive theater, but the audience's visuals are a virtual world instead. 

There are also live theater performances that are cast into VR, in which participants beam in from anywhere to be audience members or actors. The Actor's Theater of NYC has started delivering theater mini-performances and monologues within the Altspace VR app. Comedy shows are performed there, too. During a rendition of Hamlet in New York City last year, performers acted together in a remote location while audience members could virtually attend and hover around as ghosts.

But the forthcoming Oculus project would represent an advance, allowing participants to have the interactivity of a live actor without the limitations of a performance that occurs only in one place. 

It could also create a new business model for VR content. 

A fledgling media format, VR is often criticized for lacking a clear path to making money at scale. But tickets for Sleep No More, for example, start at $100 a pop. Piggybacking on the popularity of immersive theater also opens the possibility of a new business opportunity for VR. 

"At Sleep No More, people are chasing after an experience, they want to have that special moment," Rachitsky said. In VR, "how do we recreate the special moment?"

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