Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 360-degree video (collectively known as XR) didn’t evolve solely from 2-D media, they’re also direct descendants of immersive theater. To understand how to create engaging and effective XR eLearning experiences, we must look beyond the methods employed by 2-D video, games, software, and other media. We must also look to immersive theater and other live immersive experiences for lessons on audience interaction, narrative structures, scene composition, choreography, improvisation, and Gesamtkunstwerk. These time-tested techniques often translate well into XR.
How immersive theater informs XR
Immersive theater is a kind of live theater in which the audience can physically move around the set and sometimes even interact with the actors. I’ve not only attended several varieties of immersive theater, I’ve also written, produced, and directed immersive theater. I learned a lot from these experiences. Here are a few lessons that can be directly applied to producing XR training simulations:
Some immersive theater includes a facilitator, that is, a performer who guides the audience through the experience (e.g., “Quick, go through that door!” or “OK, would you now like to choose X or Y?”). Facilitator characters can easily be incorporated into XR eLearning experiences.
Audio and other sensory input
Many immersive theater productions often rely on audio cues to direct the audience’s attention. Because the immersive theater audience—or XR experience visitor—can look or move wherever they want at all times, we need to gently guide their attention to the primary points of interest (PoI) to keep the action and story moving forward. This is one of many reasons that high-quality immersive audio is arguably more important for creating presence in XR than high-quality visual effects.
If possible, and if it serves the learning objectives of the experience, we may want to appeal to other senses too, such as haptic vibrations in the hand controllers, a SubPac vest, blowing air, or even tastes and smells administered by someone outside of the virtual experience.
Experiential theme park rides, such as The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, are another kind of immersive theatrical experience. Ride designers must contend with motion sickness, short audience attention spans, and the need for frequent breaks to allow actors and other employees a chance to regularly reset and get ready for the next group. Thus, instead of having a single four-hour roller coaster with actors chatting one-on-one with each audience member the entire time, these rides tend to be a series of shorter experiences that don’t require much, if any, interaction between the audience members.
Similarly, VR tends to create less motion sickness and be more effective and more engaging when visitors can try a series of shorter learning experiences, removing the headset in between to discuss the experience with a trainer, read something about the lesson, or take a quiz.
Some immersive theater experiences employ nonlinear storytelling. That is, the story may not progress chronologically, and individual audience members may not even get to see every single thing that happens in the experience. Regardless, there still needs to be some form of thematic logic to provide a framework for understanding and to prevent complete confusion. For example, the story is likely to revolve around a single location (since it’s not easy to move to a new location or change the set), and the story often includes one or more protagonists the audience can emotionally connect to and literally follow around. Similarly, XR experiences often work well as nonlinear stories. If we do abandon linear storytelling techniques in our XR experience, we must think about what kind of thematic logic we will employ instead to ensure that visitors don’t become confused and simply quit the experience.
Immersive theater relies on effective use of space. Everything that happens occurs in physical relation to everything else. Here are some questions that help immersive theater designers use space effectively:
- How are the scenes composed? How do the various objects, people, and PoI interact to create meaning?
- How many rooms are there, and where are the doors?
- Are the actors close up or far away?
- Are the actors whispering and crouching next to a fence, shouting and leaning out through a window, or chatting with a friend while walking out in the open?
- Where is the audience in relation to all of the actors, objects, PoI, and actions?
Similarly, in XR, we must utilize the space with intention. We can’t just create what effectively amounts to 2-D scenes shown in a virtual environment. Instead, we must use the z-axis, a.k.a. the third dimension, to fully realize the capabilities of the medium. Make sure every person, object, or element in the scene is there for a reason. If it doesn’t have a purpose, either take it out of the scene or find a purpose for it.
Steal like an artist
“Steal like an artist...Every new idea is just a mashup or remix of one or more previous ideas.”
–Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
Because immersive theater is a direct progenitor of XR, we must learn from immersive theater and other live immersive theatrical experiences. As we do, we can borrow the most successful elements, including the ones described above, which will inform and greatly improve our own XR eLearning experiences.
If you'd like to learn more about creating XR eLearning experiences, you'll definitely want to check out our hands-on workshop, "BYOD: Introduction to Creating Interactive 360-degree Videos in Unity", at Realities360 on Thursday, April 2.
Bucher, John. Storytelling for Virtual Reality: Methods and Principles for Crafting Immersive Narratives. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.
The Imagineers. The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland: An Imagineer’s-Eye Tour. New York, NY: Disney Enterprises, 2008.