The fourth wall, revisited

October 12th, 2017

In theater, the direction toward the audience is called “the fourth wall”. Most of the time, the characters on stage are not aware that we are there, watching them. Only in experimental theater and works inspired by Vaudeville do they actually look out across the footlights and acknowledge our presence.

In cinema it is rare indeed for a character to breach the fourth wall. The only person I can think of in cinema history who was able to do it well was Groucho Marx. Bugs Bunny had an easy time of it as well, but he had the superpower of being a toon.

Every time a fictional character acknowledges us, the “magic circle” of storytelling is weakened. Without this magic circle firmly in place, the entire trust relationship underlying our willing suspension of disbelief is prone to collapse.

One trick that is sometimes used in cinema is to erect an inner fourth wall. This was done rather famously in The Ring. When a nightmarish figure crawls out of a TV screen within the movie we are watching, we vicariously share the horror of a character in the story. as he experiences the unexpected collapse of the safe distance between “media” and “reality”.

As we move to more immersive media, such as virtual reality, I wonder how that will change our relationship with the fourth wall. Imagine, for example, some future where VR experience, within which we are watching a movie of The Ring. Within the movie, we see a nightmarish figure crawl out of a TV set, and we witness the mounting horror of the unfortunate character who was watching that TV set.

But then we see that same nightmarish figure crawling out of the screen that we are watching, and start to head our way. I wonder what we will think.

Future news

October 11th, 2017

Journalism changes with evolving means of distribution. We have gone from the Town Crier to Newspapers to Web-based news to alerts on your phone.

With each evolution in the means of distribution, our patterns of news consumption change. This in turn changes how news is distributed.

Currently, if you get a news alert, you need to stop whatever conversation you are having in order to read and digest it. But just because delivery of news is like that now, doesn’t mean that delivery of news will need to be like that in the future.

Once wearables become ubiquitous, you and I will no longer find it necessary to interrupt our conversation in order to look at or listen to a news item. All of the information we want will appear to be floating in the air in front of us.

And that in turn will lead to interesting changes in how that news is delivered. News will no longer be packaged to be consumed during the times when we are alone, but will rather become intended source material for us to consume during our face to face conversations.

We will become used to maintaining the richness of eye contact, facial expression, body language and gesture, while also having the news of the world filter into our discussions with each other as we speak. Consequently, that news will become more granular.

At the same time, news providers will begin to provide unobtrusive means for us to navigate the news together, without interrupting our conversation. As we discuss a news feed with each other, we will continually be making cooperating decisions about how to explore that news feed together.

This will become a new kind of skill, a facility for cooperative conversational navigation of the news, which will become so ubiquitous that people won’t even realize they are doing it. Sort of like the ability to read is today — a skill that is near-universal in many parts of the world, which would seem completely astonishing to a person from a pre-literate society.

A simple plan

October 10th, 2017

Today I wanted to suggest a direction to some students for a research project. It’s such a simple plan, I thought to myself.

So I gathered them into our conference room, and described the project, jotting down notes on the wall-sized whiteboard as a went. There was this piece and that to implement, and these people to work with, and that production schedule, because some things need to happen before others.

Soon I needed to move to another part of the whiteboard to start a new section of the description, because there was a part of the project I hadn’t thought about explaining. Then that part of the whiteboard filled up as well.

By the time I was done, my simple plan was filling a large portion of the wall-sized whiteboard. There were a lot of moving parts, and ways that they needed to fit together.

It had all seemed so simple when it was still all in my head. I guess in the real world, no plan is that simple.

Future present

October 9th, 2017

An interesting question has recently come up in our lab’s research: Suppose you could perfectly reproduce the sensation of being in the physical presence of another person, so that remote conversation with that person is indistinguishable from the presence of a person who is physically with you. In what ways would it continue to matter that the person you are talking to is not actually in the same room with you?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we are yet at the point where this is possible. The detection of physical presence involves subtleties of vision, audio, touch, vibration, even smell, that may be well beyond our current level of technology.

Yet I think the question remains valid for any level of technology, whether past, present or future. For example, we are perfectly willing to have a telephone conversation with somebody, even though our remote interlocutor is not visible to us. This is because we understand the nature of phone technology, and we find ourselves able to use that technology to communicate with each other despite its limitations.

I have no doubt that it will always matter to us whether or not somebody is actually with us in the same physical room. Hence the question: After technology has advanced to the point where sensory reproduction at a distance can be absolutely perfect, what will remain as the essential difference between actual physical presence and the mere illusion of physical presence?

And it’s a wrap!

October 8th, 2017

This evening we wrapped our production of Holojam in Wonderland at Snug Harbor. Everyone on our crew was exhausted but satisfied.

There were many things we might have done differently, given more time to workshop or a larger budget, but this production was a valid statement of where we are now, and a shot across the bow declaring our vision for future theater. We had just staged four full days of a multi-actor, multi-audience live magical realist play, with everyone in the same room and wearing untethered VR headsets.

As we wrapped, I realized that all the questions we’d been too busy to ask were now once again on the table. Having seen what is possible, we will now need to set about making it even better.

As I said to one of my collaborators this evening, because I was sure she was old enough to get the reference: This wasn’t our Shea Stadium. This was our Hamburg.

This evening at Snug Harbor

October 7th, 2017

Some things never change

October 6th, 2017

Today was the first full day of showing our virtual reality theater experience to the public – the very first day’s performances of a new kind of live theater. And sure enough, for one of today’s performances the New York Times showed up.

After that performance (which I thought went well, but we will just have to see if the Times agrees), I said to our director that I thought there was an irony here.

He asked what I meant, so I explained. “Here we are,” I said, “creating a shared experience that is all about being together in the immediate moment. Yet it is only culturally validated when the Press shares it with the world.”

Our director just laughed. “Ken,” he said, “theater has always been like that.”

Wistful moment this morning

October 5th, 2017

Eighth Street, last shoe store,
Going out of business sale.
End of an era.


October 4th, 2017

It’s amazing to think that the Space Age is 60 years old today, this being the 60th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik 1. Although it seems that nobody is thinking that much about outer space anymore, other than in science fiction movies and TV shows.

We seem to have shifted our gaze inward toward computer simulated possibilities, rather than outward toward the possibilities of the Universe itself. I’m not sure that this is a good thing.

VR costume or VR puppet?

October 3rd, 2017

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.