by Hannah Williams

Royal Opera House CTO Joe McFadden on bringing AR and VR to the stage

Sep 13, 2017
IT Leadership

Royal Opera House Chief Technology Officer Joe McFadden believes augmented reality and virtual reality will have a big impact on the arts sector, helping it develop immersive experiences and create new audiences.

The former IT director at the National Theatre, McFadden told Blooloop – a publication and network for professionals working in the performance and attractions sector – that immersive technologies such as AR and VR will help deliver cutting-edge artistic performances.

[Also read: Royal Opera House CTO Joe McFadden interview – Digital opening at Covent Garden]

“We’ve been looking at this for around two and a half years now,” McFadden said. “Our first experiment with VR was with 360 VR for The Nutcracker, our regular and very much loved Christmas ballet.

“That’s a piece of work which was very much trying to identify the language of virtual reality from a storytelling perspective. We set ourselves the challenge of trying to create a third person narrative.”

Developing new audiences

McFadden confirmed that he and the ROH team have been experimenting with a few pieces of kit across different projects, part of which is the development of innovation for audiences.

“So we have Audience Labs, a relatively new addition for us,” he said. “This brings together individuals who had already been thinking about and working on the use of technologies.

“We’re talking about conversational interfaces, Alexa [from Amazon], for example, as well as VR and AR.”

VR vs AR – Immersive innovation

Although McFadden believes AR will have a stronger impact in the live arts world than VR, it is still something that he wishes to explore as an experience.

“From a virtual reality perspective, it is still very early days,” McFadden said. “I think there are a number of questions around the ways in which these experiences can be consumed in a social setting, and the business model that will support them.

“We are also thinking of the length of experiences. The received wisdom is that VR installations should only be a certain length, around seven minutes. However, in common with some other performing arts organisations that are doing fantastic work in this area, we think that’s maybe an artificial barrier.

“If the material and the content is sufficiently engaging we can do more on that front.”

Bringing innovation to life

McFadden has been piqued by the opportunities provided by immersive technology experiences for a number of years, so was buoyed by the chance to bring that idea to life and enable the Royal Opera House to develop its processes while embracing advanced visualisations and virtual tech to encourage a whole new era immersive experiences.

The Royal Opera House is not alone in its immersive experiments. The Manchester School of Art has delivered an Immersive Storylab in order to use mixed reality (AR/VR) in the form of storytelling and immersive media technology.

McFadden noted that the National Theatre is doing similar work with their Immersive Storytelling Studio, while the lab at Google Cultural Institute has also begun to explore immersive technology.

Another organisation which had experimented in this area is the Royal Shakespeare Company. They partnered with Intel in 2016 to create an immersive production of ‘The Tempest’ which the CIO Chris O’Brien described as “real innovation” in an interview withCIO UK.

However, the Royal Opera House hopes as VR and AR technologies mature the centuries-old institution will be able to use them to its advantage as a way to develop new audiences.

“I think it’s a really exciting time to explore the potential for immersive technology within the arts,” McFadden added.

You can read Blooloop’s full interview here