The Play’s the Thing: Hamlet Takes to Virtual Stage with NVIDIA GPUs

by Victoria Rege

John Gielgud. Mel Gibson. Bart Simpson. We live in a culture where everyone has taken a turn as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

But while many have stepped into the role of the ill-starred prince of Denmark to utter the line “to be or not to be,” no one has given audiences the chance to be in the world of the play itself.

Until now. To Be With Hamlet is one of the first live performances of theater in virtual reality. Created by Javier Molina, an adjunct assistant professor of integrated digital media at New York University, it joins the VR experiences at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade.

The experience premieres with a special live presentation starting Wednesday, April 26, through April 29. It runs on NVIDIA GPU-powered systems.

The performance focuses on a crucial scene near the end of Act I, where Hamlet encounters his murdered father’s ghost. By using motion capture, multi-user VR and spatial audio technology, To Be With Hamlet lets audiences walk the battlements of Elsinore Castle beside the Prince.

To Be With Hamlet VR castle still

Audiences witness a live performance in real-time streamed from an Optitrack motion capture system — which is used in Molina’s motion capture class at NYU — to their HTC Vive VR headsets. The multi-user platform lets audience members see each other in this virtual space, creating an immersive theater experience live in VR.

“The power of presence is critical in a theater production where audiences view live performances in a communal setting,” says David Gochfeld, director of the performance. “Because the NVIDIA GPUs provide the performance and fidelity required by VR, we don’t have to worry about the audience losing that feeling of presence.”

It’s is an apt counterpoint to Shakespeare’s own staging of a play within the play, placing one of Hamlet’s characters outside their own story for a moment, and allowing Hamlet to reveal a key truth within the play itself.

“By being present with Hamlet in his world, modern audiences can gain new insight into the beliefs and forces that shaped his fate,” Molina says.

How bold to bring us all into a play. About a play inside another.