A history of virtual reality in performance

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Abstract

Virtual reality (VR) technologies offer theatre and performance unique and compelling possibilities, but surprisingly few, though notable experiments have so far materialized. The essay synthesises some of its early history, surveying how it has been used in theatrical and performance contexts, where somewhat paradoxically, its high-tech and ‘futuristic’ features have most commonly been utilized to conjure ancient, classical or primeval worlds and spaces. Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland's Placeholder (1993) and Char Davies' Osmose (1994–95) return to prehistoric landscapes and times, while Yacov Sharir and Diane Gromala's Dancing with the Virtual Dervish (1994) also returns to nature, exploring the interior of the human body. VR's employment as a 3D scenographic medium is analyzed through examination of Mark Reaney's immersive live theatre designs for ieVR, Richard Beacham's navigable VR reconstructions of ancient theatres, and Blast Theory's Desert Rain (1999), which ‘restages’ the 1991 Gulf War as a participatory VR war game. The conclusion analyses the key issues currently inhibiting greater utilisation of the technology in theatre and performance, and its potential for development in the future.

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