Full-body motion capture offers a unique, but flawed live theater experience.
This past weekend marked the debut of Miranda, a VR steampunk opera performed live on-stage by a cast of professional actors operating remotely out of Binghamton, NY. In Miranda, one of the city’s wealthiest socialites has been murdered, and it’s up to you to decide who is guilty.
Because this weekend was the first show, the organizers behind Miranda offered free tickets to anyone around the world who wanted to be part of the debut. The show was also live-streamed on YouTube for those without access to VR headsets.
Keep in mind that this is live theater. Miranda features professional actors in motion capture suits performing on-stage in real-time. Things can go wrong. This is why the producers asked for a little forgiveness in case things didn’t go as planned—which they’d didn’t.
I had a ticket for Saturday evening’s performance. Ahead of the show, I was hit with an avalanche of instructions on how to properly set up SteamVR to access the Miranda VR experience. I understand why the team felt it necessary to provide some form of guidance, but the overwhelming amount of instructions—with each email being slightly different—was unnecessary. I could definitely see how all that information could potentially discourage attendees from wanting to participate.
Once I was in the experience, I was placed into a VR lobby before entering the show. Visually, the world of Miranda is nothing short of stunning. Luma, Tri-Cities Opera, Enhance VR, and Opera Omaha put a lot of work into creating an incredible steampunk world that feels like a mash-up of Blade Runner and Knives Out. The avatars of each character looked like they stepped out of a classic Agatha Christie novel.
Unfortunately, I suffered major audio issues during my show. Sometimes I could hear the actors as they went about performing their scenes. Most of the time, however, I could only hear background noise, which was especially disappointing considering the incredible list of talent. Leela Subramaniam, Quinn Bernegger, Trevor Martin, Tehanee Aluwihare, and Timothy Stoddard, all extremely talented actors that I was, unfortunately, unable to fully appreciate.
Miranda also features its fair share of moving camera angles, which proved to be its own challenge. Several times throughout my viewing the camera would pan throughout the virtual environment in order to direct our attention to specific areas of the world. This caused a lot of VR sickness (or motion sickness) for me. Most times I’m able to avoid motion sickness by controlling my in-game movements, using the motion controls to move or teleport throughout my environment.
In Miranda, audiences are guided automatically throughout each scene, sort of like an on-rails shooter. The idea was to replicate the feeling of walking across a stage. In the end, however, this automatic locomotion left me feeling incredibly queasy. It was so bad at times I actually had to step out of VR periodically throughout the performance. Eventually, I had to completely exit the experience because I was so sick. This could be incredibly discouraging to someone who is new to VR, potentially tarnishing their image of the technology as a whole.
To be fair, however, motion sickness should always be approached on a case-by-case. Despite having spent countless hours in VR, there are still several games and experiences that leave me feeling ill, such as Pistolwhip and a couple of levels in Audio Trip. Some attendees may find zero discomforts when it comes to Miranda’s on-rails locomotion.
One question, in particular, came to mind during my viewing: Why didn’t the producers use an existing platform like Engage, VRChat, or AltSpace to deliver their Miranda VR experience? Each has worked very hard to eliminate VR sickness, and any one of them would allow producers to build out a virtual stage for actors to perform in. Plus there is already a large community of users who would be more than willing to support a project like this. Perhaps it came down to issues regarding full-body motion capture.
Like any new idea, we need to give the live VR theater industry space to grow, evolve, and adapt. After all, look at how VR experiences, in general, have changed. We’ve gone from basic 360 videos of roller coasters to sci-fi flight sims like Star Wars: Squadrons.
I do think the producers of Miranda are on to something, and I hope they continue to explore their version of live theater. Even with the audio glitch and VR sickness, the producers as well as the actors should all be very proud of what they’ve accomplished. With the team over at The Under Presents working on their own live VR theater experience, we could be looking at the beginning of a new era in remote entertainment.
Image Credit: Tri-Cities Opera, LUMA, Opera Omaha