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Virtual Reality from The Balcony

It used to be called the “new new thing.” That next piece of networked hardware or software that was going to blow open new vistas in human experience and open the wallets of people all across the land. Every once in a while the pundits decide that it’s virtual reality gear. Oculus Rift and MS Hololens are the current standard bearers of this particular dream. Virtual reality is an externalization of interior space. It’s a technology that’s meant to take things we imagine and pipe them directly into someone else’s imagination as a product you can buy.

We call it “virtual reality” because very little suspension of disbelief is required. The audience member shouldn’t have to interpret or fill in pieces of the dream. The dream itself provides all the fidelity of a “real” experience. Of course, this is a very naive view of how reality is experienced by humans.

Once the uncanny valley is traversed, the importance of the hardware will fall away. That means technology will have defeated the human sensory system’s ability to distinguish between a created reality and a given reality. It then becomes a question of what virtual reality you desire. When you escape this world and enter a predesigned world-like experience, what will you choose?

The model, Kate Upton, plays a character in a video game called “Game of War.” Celebrities can sell the specifications of their likeness, and create filmed segments, that put them inside these virtual reality experiences. It won’t be long before individual game players actually pay to have all of their personal data uploaded into the game engine so that they too can be rendered into the virtual world. There’s only one real Kate Upton, but in virtual reality everyone can participate in a story with the model (or a model of the model).

Interrogating these fantasies becomes a key not just to the potential future of the technology, but to the minds behind the effort. The San Francisco-based theater group, The Collected Works has taken on the challenge by deciding that now is the right time to produce Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.” In the play, clients in a brothel pay to play the roles of figures of authority while a rebellion unfolds in the city around them. Many meta-narratives ensue for the characters. Even the audience is implicated in the play’s layers of reality and illusion. Genet gives us virtual reality without the technical apparatus.

The character of the Chief of Police wishes nothing more than to enter the secret desires of the brothel’s customers. He hopes that a customer will choose to impersonate him in their secret virtual reality sessions. One can easily imagine the technologists of virtual reality (the nerds, the geeks) hoping that the audience will choose to enact the role of the creator of technologies It’s always the next step for the latest edition of the “masters of the universe.”

Sometimes a theatrical performance is timed to play with themes coursing through the culture. In this case, the venue couldn’t be more perfect. It’s San Francisco’s Old Mint. You know, the place where they used to print money. The Collected Works has the opportunity to open up the beating heart of the zeitgeist, raise it above their heads, and show it to us in performance.

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