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Credits: Oblivia

Augmented reality and the shift towards smartphone mediated stage – are we there yet?

Oblivia did the first steps trying to integrate new interactive technologies into the artistic work in 2017 through a partnership with TECHNE project at Theater Rampe and Künstlerhaus Stuttgart in Germany.

As a response to the project call we were invited to rethink the notion of technology in relation to nature. At that time we were making acquaintance with AR, augmented reality, that made us excited but perplexed at the same time. At the start we were brainstorming about big natural force-like visual effects starting from small physical gestures of a performer that would take over the stage and transmit to each audience member through their smartphones. We imagined how the performers could carry invisible strengths that would be revealed through AR and how they could appear as surreal beings having hidden techniques to access mystical forces. The possibilities to expand the narrative were mind-blowing but when we discovered more the technology behind the medium, it occurred to be much less magical in reality to realize what it was in our imagination. 

We got a crash course in AR from professionals working with the Arilyn app. By learning step by step the workflow of creating and delivering an AR experience, we discovered the technical requirements and working conditions are more specific and strict than we expected. The crucial stumbling block was the need to provide a clear visual trigger to launch the content through an application. Using body gestures or human constellations seemed an Oblivian choice for us, but they appeared to be too vague for the computer program to recognise and interpret. The visual accuracy of the trigger image needed to be so exact that it was impossible to reproduce with live actions. Rolling in high contrasted graphical prints felt like a special program number that we didn’t want. The wide spreading audience seating that we find usually in each theater venue was also problematic. We wouldn’t have been able to offer an equally suitable viewing spot for the trigger and the content in relation to the stage picture without rethinking the audience layout. This was either our option.

But if I remember right, the main obstacle for us to use AR as a part of the performance was the user interface, the smartphone itself. We just couldn’t imagine a live performance where in the middle everyone starts to fumble with their phones, it felt so ridiculous and out of question. For this reason we decided to create an AR experience of its own right, a pre- or post-performance pocket performance. In this way the two modes of being, live and online, stayed separate in time but they were still connected through the concept of the actual content. A coaster with the image of the flyer as a trigger revealed the same characters that you could find in the live performance, the performers doing the different animals that we saw on stage. As a conclusion, the initial idea of integrating AR in the stage performance didn’t happen. It got a secondary role, and served more as a promotional material.

We have come a long way from our AR experiment in 2017 in means of technological development but even further with the audience’s ability to engage with these kinds of technology mediated performance formats. The remote stages alike have become more and more familiar to us since the spring 2020. The digitisation of the stage has made huge leaps due to the measures for social distancing and gathering restrictions in the cultural sector. We are now familiar with various performance formats that are strongly mediated through a technology, very often with the smartphone. The effort to connect and create a shared experience has not disappeared even though we operate through an intermediate device. It has become clear that intimacy, sense of liveness and interaction can be transmitted, they occur more as the audience’s affective experience than defining characteristics of a live performance. 

In the light of these experiences I’m wondering whether the time has come to consider technological devices such as smartphones as an organic extension of the live performance stage. Would we be soon ready to encounter an audience that is staring at their phones and see this as an act of connecting with the performance? Could we trust that technology can bring us together instead of building a barrier? Maybe the mental process has at least begun in order to see “the device” as a partner to build the experience that is in nature always somehow mediated through the conditions it happens. Still many questions remain to better understand this specific mode of experiencing, but much we can already draw from our everyday life where we constantly fluently operate in between online and offline presence. How this relation will be further explored in the performance context is super exciting, as it was five years ago when we first saw a miniature Anski as a rabbit jumping all over the table top!