VR expands the limits of Chicago comedy and improv

A 360-camera captures sketch comedy at the iO Theater.

By Grace Austin

Virtual reality is arriving on to the Windy City’s sketch scene, as iO Chicago launched pioneering technology designed to bring the outside viewer into the decidedly low-tech, interactive form of comedy.

In a cozy theater in Goose Island last Sunday, amongst a small but warm crowd of about 20, ceiling microphones and a tall, 360-degree camera were set up in the center of the room to capture the often-absurd sketches centered around such topics as witches, dating guys that look like your father, and tabby cats. IO performed their usual style of improv on a small stage with a smattering of chairs in the audience. But this virtual reality technology recorded the performance to be developed later on as a full VR experience.

Engaging an outside and potentially new audience while experimenting with new technology are what iO administrators and techies say excites them about the project.

“We’re in the discovery phase. Right now, we’re doing it to do it. Have fun, see what happens. … Improv doesn’t translate amazingly well with a [normal] camera. But sitting in the room, in VR, it really transports you. It’s an experience; you’re really transported to that space. So, we’re hoping that it’s a way to experience improv if you can’t get to the theater,” said Brett Singer, principal of Bottle Rocket Media, a video production company funding the project.

Cody Reiss, artistic director of the iO Comedy Network, and an actor in the iO Harold team Comet group, speaks to the translation issue.

“It’s always been super hard to translate improv using video, because part of the experience of improv is being in the theater and watching this thing being created as it’s being created,” said Reiss.

The technology that iO uses consists of a four-camera system. As Singer says, the camera, newly arrived from China, has a better-quality lens which they shoot all-around simultaneously, then stitch all together into one continuous image. They also combine the audio from the performers, who are each given a lavalier mic, and the overhead mics.

This is not the first time virtual reality has made an impact in the arts and media. During the 80’s and 90s, the technology was the newest fad in tech. Now, virtual reality is back, thanks to advancements in video technology and wireless internet connectivity.

Facebook is ramping up its virtual reality division, while CEO Mark Zuckerberg called VR the “next major computing and communication platform.” Google’s virtual reality film was recently nominated for an Oscar, while video games like Oculus Rift are using the technology.

Sam Bowers, program director of the iO Comedy Network, says iO’s involvement with the medium grew out of his relationship with Fry, a former professor of his at Columbia College, and a conversation with Reiss.

For now, there are still kinks to be worked out. The actors are not necessarily playing up the technology, especially the ones that are new to improv.

“Right now, we’re kind of breaking the barrier, getting to know what the environment will be like, but the goal, at least for me, is to kind of get them to come off the stage and play with the environment,” said Fry, adding that visual and audio cues can enhance the viewer’s experience and tell him or her where to focus their attention.

Although each performer wears a mic to capture their audio, it’s up to the individual to utilize the space and even the audience into their performance.

Another challenge is finding an online, outside audience. But while virtual reality technology for users has been prohibitively pricey over the years for the average consumer, smartphones have made it relatively inexpensive, with headsets that just require one to insert their phone.

For the audience at the show, the virtual reality setup was not obvious, but most had positive feedback about the technology.

“I think VR used to be recognized in the ’80s, but not lately. It has advanced; it’s a bigger experience. You can feel like you’re there,” said show-goer Rafael Vargas.

Virtual reality is a buzzy word, but it remains to be seen whether it will take off in sketch comedy. Undeniably, it is garnering a lot of excitement at iO and could prove to be a forward-thinking and potentially seat-filling decision.

“Anybody who’s into it would never confess to actually knowing what the hell is going on,” said Singer. “It’s a lot of fun, and investigation, and discovery and mistakes.”

Photo at top: A large stand-up mic in the center of the room takes in 360-video at iO. (Grace Austin/MEDILL)