Top-shelf VR headset manufacturer Varjo has been to space and designed cars. Now, it’s going to the opera. At a time when collaborative projects are more difficult than ever, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB) is using Varjo technology to explore the fast-moving world of virtual theater production.
Like most COVID narratives, this story begins at least a year before the virus became a problem.
The World of Opera Beyond
The Finnish National Opera and Ballet launched Opera Beyond to explore the use of emerging technologies including projection mapping, spatial audio, motion tracking, and machine learning in virtual theater productions.
“Immersive mediums offer a good opportunity for traditional art organizations to boldly explore the limits of their art forms, produce new kinds of work, and reach new audiences,” Opera Beyond project manager Annastina Haapasaari said in an ARPost interview. “We will absolutely continue developing and using the platform after social distancing restrictions are lifted.”
As America’s “Scrappy Storyteller” Brendan Bradley told ARPost in a November interview, in addition to creating immersive experiences, levering emerging technologies in virtual theater production can reduce the time and production cost. That’s true whether the production takes place on a virtual stage or on a physical stage.
“The need for this kind of tool is high in opera and ballet organizations where the productions are often massive, the amount of people involved is enormous, sets and visual elements are built from scratch, technological solutions can operate on very advanced levels, and artistic teams are highly international,” said Haapasaari.
While COVID-19 didn’t launch Opera Beyond, the two ideas cannot currently be seen as completely independent.
“People now clearly have a much more open mind for experimenting with digital tools, and they now understand the advantages of these kinds of workflows and remote coworking platforms better,” said Haapasaari.
Virtual Theater and the High-Tech Opera
Opera Beyond and the FNOB have no shortage of impressive tech partners, including Nokia Bell Labs. They also use hardware from fellow Finland-based immersive tech company Varjo. Their first collaboration involved creating virtual theater stages at the Helsinki Opera House, initially for pre-production purposes.
“The idea is that in the virtual pre-production phase we could simulate the production in an immersive setting before the sets were physically built,” FNOB production and technical director Timo Tuovila said in a release shared with ARPost. “Because of our quality and definition requirements, Varjo’s headsets were the only ones we considered using.”
Varjo’s “human eye resolution” headsets that can seamlessly move from AR to VR and anywhere in between are some of the most coveted pieces of kit on the market. However, Haapasaari is careful to avoid using technology for the sake of using technology.
“Technology used in artistic work should always be ‘justified’ artistically by the content and should thematically play out well with it,” said Haapasaari. “With the tools, we should first of all have the function in mind – what purpose and end goal are we designing the tool for?”
Approaching the technology from this perspective also helps to reduce the learning curve for the technology by thinking of the art and the artist first.
“Because we are creating a platform that brings together the work of professionals from many fields of expertise, the UX and UI are critical,” said Haapasaari. “We have to think about the usability from the viewpoints of various departments and keep in mind the different technological skills people are equipped with.”
Experiencing “Opera Beyond”
Opera Beyond isn’t only working with immersive technology in the preproduction phase. The program has created two virtual theater productions so far. Common Domain is an interactive installation by artist Kalle Rasinkangas, and Laila used motion capture and machine learning to make participants actors on the stage rather than audience members.
It can only be anticipated that a larger number of more immersive virtual theater productions will be coming our way in the near future as artists, production teams, and hardware and software manufacturers continue to expand the boundaries of entertainment.
“We need to keep on exploring, because this is the only way to learn what tech can do for us and how we can build these tools even better,” said Haapasaari.