The new normal: virtual reality takes on the arts

From Batman v Superman to The Tempest at Stratford, here’s how virtual reality will shape the arts, culture and entertainment industries in 2016


Batman Vs Superman Doomsday

In January, it was revealed that Apple is assembling a team of virtual reality (VR) experts to build prototypes of 3D headsets to match those of VR rivals Oculus Rift, which was bought by Facebook for $2bn (Ksh 200bn) in 2014; Google Cardboard, which transforms your smartphone into a cut-price VR viewer; Microsoft’s forthcoming VR product HoloLens, or Magic Leap, which is being developed by a secretive US start-up.

Lucky's Tale

Lucky’s Tale

Coming soon: eagerly awaited VR releases include Lucky’s Tale

This year the major technology players will all place big bets that virtual reality is about to change the way we live in as many far-reaching ways as the internet has. If that is true, what will it mean for the arts and entertainment? Intriguingly, the rise of virtual reality (in which a brand new reality is presented to the subject, typically via a helmet-like headset) and augmented reality (in which computer-generated elements are overlaid on the subject’s view of the real world) throws up different challenges for each branch of the arts.

For video games, recent advances in VR are a natural progression of the evolution of gameplay over the last 40 years. 2016’s most exciting new VR releases will include the cartoon-like Lucky’s Tale, the multi-player space combat game Eve: Valkyrie and the arctic adventure Edge of Nowhere, out later this year, all playable with an Oculus Rift headset and PC.

No wonder it is predicted that around the world we will spend $5.1bn (£3.7bn) on virtual-reality video games and hardware this year.

By contrast, immersive technologies are having surprisingly little impact on film. Of course, computer-generated images have led to a revolution in the kind of stories that can be told on screen. Many of 2016’s most keenly anticipated films – Batman v Superman (out 25 March), The Jungle Book (out 15 April), Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (out 22 July) and the Harry Potter-inspired Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (out 18 November) – rely on CGI to cast their spell.

The Jungle Book (out 15 April)

The Jungle Book (out 15 April)

New vision: The Jungle Book  Photo: Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

But film-lovers have so far failed to respond as enthusiastically to advances in the way films are themselves experienced: 3-D is best suited to eye-popping action movies, while for more realistic dramas and comedies many cinema-goers find the added “realism” a distraction.

Do we want virtual reality to make us feel like active participants in cinema – so that audiences can, for instance, touch and even taste the raw bison liver that Leonardo DiCaprio eats in The Revenant? Perhaps not.

A quieter revolution in virtual reality is already underway in Britain’s museums and galleries. At the end of last year, the British Museum launched its first virtual tours, in which users could explore its collection from the comfort of their sofas by using an indoor version of Google Maps’ Street View. It was part of the ongoing roll-out of the Google Cultural Institute, a scheme to provide internet-enabled access to great artistic and historical collections around the world.

In truth, the project is not as revelatory as it sounds because the virtual representation of the museums and their objects is not sufficiently fluent or realistic. But this will come. Between now and 2020 we can expect tens of thousands of cultural treasures currently stored in the archives of the British Museum, National Gallery, V&A and others to become available to the general public thanks to virtual reality.

The Tempest at Stratford

The Tempest at Stratford

Show stopper: The Tempest at Stratford in November  Photo: RSC

One might presume that the theatre – perhaps our most ancient form of virtual reality – would have little to gain from these advances. In fact, 2016 will see several innovative experiments that combine elements of VR with live theatrical performance.

In November, for instance, the Royal Shakespeare Company will present a production of The Tempest at Stratford quite unlike any seen in the play’s 405-year history, as the spirit Ariel will be represented by a 3D hologram projected above the audience using technology developed by Andy Serkis’s visual effects studio Imaginarium. Is this the stuff our future dreams are made on?