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London theatre tests touch-based tech

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New touch-based technology has been tested by a London theatre company that aims to allow audience members to explore theatre with senses other than sight.

Extant –  a company that is led by visually impaired performers – trialled new inventions during a run of an immersive theatre production of 1884 novella Flatland. The production took place in total darkness at a former church in Southwark.

Volunteers – both visually impaired and sighted – were navigated around the production by a handheld cube that rotated in response to WiFi and radio signals, indicating the direction participants should follow.

A prototype for the touch-guide device was developed in 2014, after the project was granted £125,000 by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk acted as advisers on the trial, which also used interactive set pieces, narrative audio, and interaction with actors and fellow volunteers.

The project is still in the testing stages, with the Open University collecting and analysing data on how the technology performed during the trial run.

Extant founder and artistic director Maria Oshodi told The Stage: “We’ve had thousands of years of theatre received and experienced in a particular way since the ancient Greeks. It’s been mediated through spectacle, and we understand that.”

She added: “But we are still nevertheless beings that have other senses that are available to us. Touch predates sight in the development of a human being, yet it’s not necessarily given much space. That’s what we’re trying to do here – to see what it means to unfold a narrative where touch comes first.”

She also revealed hopes the cube would have applications beyond theatre, both in the wider arts and in daily life for the visually impaired.

The production, which was not open to the public, was a test run for a fully fledged production of Flatland that Extant hopes to stage in 2018.

The Open University’s findings on the test run will be published in April.

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