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According to a report by Jo Bowman in Research Live, The Royal Shakespeare Company has been doing research into audience viewing experiences, comparing live stage theater, cinema broadcast and viewing the performances through a VR headset, using a group of 107 test subjects. But what are the results of this VR Shakespeare?
The play they selected for their VR Shakespeare experiment was Titus Andronicus, a play co-written by William Shakespeare and George Peele. Reputedly, Shakespeare’s most bloodthirsty play, Titus tells the story of bloodthirsty feuding in ancient Rome and the kingdom of the Goths.
Becky Loftus, who heads the RSC’s “Audience Insight” section explained that the audience was initially divided to see the play either in the cinema or via a VR headset and that their heart rates were monitored by a wrist-worn device. Interviews were also conducted with the subjects afterwards. The choice of Titus Andronicus might have been because of its high levels of violence and gore, commonly attributed to Peele rather than Shakespeare.
The live audience saw the play at Stratford-upon-Avon, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Assisted by MORI and their formidable experience in statistical research, the two groups were matched demographically, taking into account such factors as age, gender and previous theater experience.
The research was subsequently expanded to include a further group who watched the play through a VR headset. For the VR Shakespeare aspect of the experiment, the performance was filmed in 360-degree VR by Gorilla In The Room and shown to the VR group of subjects via the HTV Vive headset.
The results showed that watching Titus Andronicus was the equivalent of a 5-minute cardio workout, across all viewing platforms: live theater, cinema and Virtual Reality headset. This took the form of elevated heart-rates at various times during the play’s performance. The effect was more pronounced in men than in women. However, at the start of the performance, the heart-rates were higher in the live theater than in either of the other groups. Although the reason has not been established, the researchers theorized that this was due to elevated levels of anticipation.
According to Pippa Bailey of Ipsos MORI, 91% of the VR Shakespeare group experienced “moments” when they felt as if they in the theater. In contrast, only 64% of the cinema group had similar experiences. According to cognitive scientist Dr Alistair Goode of Gorilla in the Room, “It showed the potential virtual reality has for use within research – its uncanny ability to replicate real experiences, and respondents’ tolerance for being in VR, opens up an entirely new world for us as researchers.”
Becky Loftus added: “This unique study has allowed us to understand the parallels and differences that theater, cinema and a 360 filmed VR can bring. Specifically, this research will allow us to understand the potential that VR can bring to truly replicate reality and understand how people respond, what they attend to and how they react. The potential applications in the research industry to better understand responses to different experiences, environments and stimuli are significant.”
In the post-performance interviews with the subjects, the theater audience expressed the greatest sense of interaction with the actors. But those watching via VR indicated a higher level of engagement than those who view the performance in the cinema. On the other hand, the cinema audience found the performance more “moving”. The researchers attribute this to the use of close-ups, directing the audience to specific details, such as facial expressions showing the emotional pain of some of the characters. In contrast, the theater and VR Shakespeare audiences could move their heads freely to see such details as they wanted, with no close-ups or external direction.
There were also some other technical differences in the way the different groups saw the performances. For example, the VR Shakespeare group saw the play in five acts - which is how Shakespeare actually wrote it - rather than the normal two-act structure of modern theater. However, individual subjects could choose whether to watch the play with breaks or not. The 360° method of filming also meant that viewers could turn their heads around and see other audience members.
Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at the RSC observed that: “The results have shown us that even after 400 years, Shakespeare’s work packs an emotional punch to today’s audiences wherever and however it is experienced.