If you want to see the present and future of virtual reality, just like the present and future of Broadway, you need to take a journey to the late 18th century.
I speak, of course, of Hamilton, the 11-Tony-Award-winning musical. More specifically, I am thinking of the brief 360-degree video of “Wait For It” released a couple weeks ago. It is not virtual reality per se, but the staging of the video is a preview of what VR stands to do well in reproducing the theatrical experience:
A theatrical production can—and should—command your attention, but it can only dictate so many of the terms. It can foreground scenes and characters, but it cannot guarantee that you will look at whoever is front and center. It can only hint strongly. If you are bored or distracted, you can track an actor in the chorus or peer into the orchestra pit or even stare at your fellow audience members. It isn’t a choose-your-own-adventure scenario insofar as the action keeps going no matter what you do. But the event is nonetheless shaped by the combination of the spectator and performers’ decisions.
This is a similar dynamic to VR films. In most cases, films—even of the VR variety—have a relatively clear focal point and a periphery that can be explored. A series of formal decisions are made before you strap on a headset, but your subjective experience factors in a series of choices made in the moment. As with a theater show, you can decide to focus on a character in the background. It’s your call.
VR is the future of theatrical recordings
The constant negotiation between the viewer and artist is what makes many VR films so awkward. Film, unlike theater, does not have a particularly wide field of vision. You can look around the screen a bit, but most of your sight is shrouded in black. Conversely, films about musicals suffer from a lack of choices. (This problem was only exacerbated in Tom Hooper’s godawful 2012 film version of Les Misérables, which went all-in on close-ups.) The 360-degree video of “Wait For It” solves for these problems. You could do a Hooper-esque zoom in on Leslie Odom Jr.’s face (and who could blame you?) but you also have the option of panning around and taking in the theater, the cast, and the conductor. Those are all valid and rewarding experiences. If only the recordings of Hamilton set to be made before much of the original cast departs on July 9 had the same quality.
One of the problems with virtual reality cinema in 2016 is that we don’t yet know what it’s really good for. With the money behind the technology, it better be good for something big and mainstream—at least one day. It should not, in other words, be good for theatrical performances. But what if that’s what VR is good for—at least right now? From a detached consumer standpoint, that’s good news; it’s an upgrade over how theater is currently captured on film. But it’s hard to think that this is the real metric of success that any VR enterprise has. VR is the future of theatrical recordings, and that isn’t an entirely encouraging thought.