Hamlet 360 and Other Stage Plays Integrate Immersive Tech

Theaters, from the experimental to the commercial, are using augmented reality, 360-degree videography and other new technologies to make their productions more immersive, even on traditional stages. In one recent production, “Hamlet 360,” technical direction by Sensorium transforms the 61-minute Shakespearean play into virtual reality. Another recent example is The Builders Association’s AR-integrated production “Elements of Oz,” where audience members use their cellphones to see a tornado approach Dorothy’s house.

The New York Times covers other recent examples of theater productions that have used new technologies. Another, at the Public Theater, is James Graham’s “Privacy,” which encourages the audience to use their cellphones. In 2017, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Tempest” – in cahoots with Intel and a motion-capture company founded by Andy Serkis – featured a virtual Ariel that appeared live and projected onto screens, sharing the part with actor Mark Quartley.

Sensorium also worked with Geoff Sobelle’s one-man play “The Object Lesson” presented at New York Theater Workshop and the Tribeca Film Festival. With their smartphones, attendees can “wander through sections of Sobelle’s clutter-filled set and … learn more about what was inside the many boxes and drawers.”

The 2016 Broadway production “The Encounter” also used binaural sound piped to headsets audience members wore to “capture the journey of a Western explorer lost in the Amazon rain forest.” “The Lion King,” “Hamilton” and “School of Rock” have also offered videos “that allow viewers to experience what it’s like onstage during a big number.”

Elsewhere, NYT digs deeper into “Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit” (above), noting that audience members experience the play from the point of view of Hamlet’s murdered father, appearing “haggard, bloody, ferocious and, in fact, dead.” The production was created via a partnership between Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which stages free Shakespeare on Boston Common, and Google. “This allows us to scale [our] mission to the world and truly democratize Shakespeare and theater,” said Commonwealth Shakespeare Company founding artistic director and director of the film Steven Maler.

The 61-minute “Hamlet 360” was released on Boston PBS station WGBH and “will be hosted on the station’s YouTube page, where it can be watched in 3D using a VR headset or in two dimensions on a desktop or mobile device.” The film’s budget was about $500,000, “roughly similar to what the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company spends each year on its Boston Common productions.” The production, which takes place in a single room, focuses on Hamlet’s relationship with his father, creating a play that “is both extremely long by the standards of virtual reality and extremely short by the standards of ‘Hamlet’.”

Google director of augmented reality and virtual reality content Matt Apfel said that, “one of his central goals for the project was to bring this ‘Hamlet’ into classrooms and schools, where performances of Shakespeare are common, but professional-caliber productions are not … [giving] teachers another tool to bring the material to life.” The production, shot with the Yi Halo 360 camera, is made up of extremely long takes; cinematographer and technical director Matthew Niederhauser noted that “quick takes can be hard to watch in VR because viewers have to reorient themselves every time the camera moves.”