VR costume or VR puppet?

This week we will be publicly premiering a theater piece in which the actors appear as digital avatars. It’s all live performance, with actors and audience members in the same room and in their actual positions. But everything is seen digitally.

Looking at this one way, each actor is a puppeteering digital puppet, which just happens to be the same size and in the same location as the actor herself. Looked at another way, the actor is simply wearing an elaborate digital costume.

So it seems that performance in VR raises some interesting definitional questions. For example, what is the boundary between puppetry and costume?

This is certainly not an entirely new question. After all, when Sweetums first showed up in Jim Henson’s The Frog Prince in 1971, many children were undoubtedly asking themselves the same question: Is that a puppet like Kermit, or is that a guy in a costume like the Cowardly Lion?

Virtual Reality theater ups the game a bit, because the “costume” in question can take on surreal qualities. Take for example, a VR performer dressed up in a digital ostrich costume. Unlike such a costume in the physical world, in VR the character’s knees can bend backwards.

Maybe there is no good answer here. We might need to come up with a different vocabulary to discuss the relatively new realm of VR theater.

4 Responses to “VR costume or VR puppet?”

  1. Muso says:

    Hi Ken, I’m from Lotus Lee Foundation, and I’ve been following your blog for a while. May I ask when and where will this VR theatre piece be premiered? Because we’re also trying to combine VR with Theatre and exploring the future of storytelling. I would love to see it in person and have a conversation with you if possible. Thank you.

  2. admin says:

    It will be at the Future of Storytelling Festival at Snug Harbor, Staten Island this Friday through Sunday, Oct 6-8.

    Let me know if you get there!

  3. Adrian says:

    It’s like trying to figure out if Goofy is a dog (like Pluto) or something else.

    In my mind the distinction is that a costume covers the majority of a performer (notably the face and head), a la Sweetums, but a puppet is a character that is primarily remotely controlled even if they cover part of the performer (like hand puppet or a finger puppet).

    But that distinction may not really help when it comes to VR characters. On the one hand, in reality, the performer’s face is covered by a headset, like a costume, but the character exists only as a projection into other people’s senses, making it remote like a puppet. Fascinating question!

  4. Stephan Ahonen says:

    Is there going to be a “recording” of the performance that a VR-equipped consumer such as myself could experience from home?

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