Virtual reality theatre puts experience of brain damage centre stage

Jane Gauntlett’s brain injury forced her to rethink her work, resulting in an intimate mix of storytelling and wearable tech

Jane Gauntlett leads someone wearing audio-visual and more conventional props through a performance of In My Shoes in New York.
Jane Gauntlett leads someone wearing audio-visual and more conventional props through a performance of In My Shoes in New York. Photograph: Amy Hart

In 2007, Jane Gauntlett was planning for a career in theatre when she was violently mugged and fell into a coma for three weeks. She suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the long term legacy of which includes epileptic seizures and short term memory and communication problems.

“When I woke from the coma I had no idea how severe the injury was. I was adamant that I was to become a freelance theatre producer,” says Gauntlett, who had completed the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme while working previously for mental health charities. Initially, she stayed on track, gaining experience with interactive theatre makers at Battersea Arts Centre and producing shows in Edinburgh, London and Margate.

However, work was disrupted by epilepsy. Worse than the seizures themselves was the alarmed reaction of colleagues, and this was compounded by the humiliation of not being able to remember and communicate as freely as she once had during the creative process.

Life will never be the same

The first step toward accepting her life post-injury was to volunteer as a mentor for young people with similar issues. She worked to facilitate understanding between those she mentored and those who could in no way relate to the daily experience of TBI, which can be frustrating and scary. Those whose injuries leave no physical trace face the biggest challenge, since their problems are so easy for others to overlook. Gauntlett says the young people had to accept that life would never be the same because “communication with families, friends and strangers was often tough.”

It was this imperative for empathy between those with and without brain injuries that gave Gauntlett her route back into theatre. But to achieve her goal, she had to look beyond the spacial and relational conventions of performance. The result was a piece called In My Shoes which lacks anything one might recognise as actors or an audience and is also non-site specific. In fact, the immersive and single-user experience relies mostly on technology.

Life becomes theatre with the aid of technology

The piece recreates the producer’s own disorientating experience of waking up in Slough after a seizure, with no idea how she got there. The audience – or rather the one person experiencing the show – is put “into Gauntlett’s shoes by wearing Vuzix 920 Eyewear, wrap-around video glasses, and earbuds connected to an iPod Touch which deprive them of their own, familiar senses. Virtual reality takes over and is augmented further by the manipulation of touch, taste and smell, though exactly what happens should probably be saved for the performance itself.

“We have our eyes peeled for technology that will enhance our experiences – we want to keep up to date,” says Gauntlett. “In My Shoes experiments with alternative methods of communication. My aim is to put audiences as close to being in the shoes of a stranger as I can, I use virtual reality software, touch, taste, sound & smell to make it as true to life as possible.”

The success of the first incarnation – reactions run the gamut of emotion but are never underwhelmed – led to the evolution of the piece. Gauntlett formed a collective called Sublime and Ridiculous, to share the work of exploring a variety of complex, delicate or controversial subjective realities. They have so far put hundreds of willing participants into the shoes of a people with post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder and stroke, as well as those of a paramedic and a trans-gender person. They have plans to adapt the piece and its technology to explore the perspectives of an astronaut, a politician, a dominatrix and a murderer.

Though Gauntlett had no prior experience in the field, technology is now integral to her work: “I am fascinated by how quickly things are evolving and have my eyes peeled for new inventions. In My Shoes is an ever-expanding collection of audio and audio-visual experiences and I am keen to expand it, and for it to evolve using cutting edge technology as it becomes available.”

Different versions of My Shoes have been performed by the Sublime and Ridiculous collective in New York and London. Photograph: Amy Hart
Different versions of My Shoes have been performed by the Sublime and Ridiculous collective in New York and London. Photograph: Amy Hart

Technological innovation is part of theatre’s future

Despite such a unique genesis and production, she is quick to point out that the symbiosis of theatre and tech is common in contemporary performance. “Interactive theatre plays a large part in the fringe scene,” she says, while elsewhere, technology is used to deepen understanding in other specific contexts: “High tech Kabuki theatre in Japan uses portable monitors [for the audience to read] subtitles in order to better understand an artform that is often difficult to comprehend.”

As well as illuminating intensely personal experiences, Gauntlett hopes such advances will lead to more international collaboration and theatre that is accessible to much broader demographics. However, she says: “I don’t think theatre’s survival and relevance depends on embracing technological advances.” The point is there is room for everything, and technology-driven theatre will gain momentum as technology becomes ever more integral to people’s daily lives.

Such innovation, she says, “is sometimes frowned upon by critics. However, if the work is good it shouldn’t matter.”

Robots test their own world wide web

Robots test their own world wide web

Drone’s flight inspired by jellyfish

Flying drone inspired by swimming jellyfish

The machine uses a flying strategy that has not been explored in evolution

Scientists have built what they say is the first flying machine that hovers in a stable manner by flapping its wings.

Previous designs for so-called flapping wing aircraft have mimicked the wing motions of insects, but the new design is based on the way jellyfish swim.

The prototype built by scientists at New York University is able to keep upright and recover from disturbances.

The authors say their machine shows the value of researching flying strategies not yet explored by evolution.

The work by Leif Ristroph and Stephen Childress from New York University (NYU) is published in the UK Royal Society journal Interface.

Most efforts to build stable flapping-wing aircraft – or ornithopters – have based their designs on the way insects fly.

But this approach leads to aircraft that are inherently unstable, tending to flip over if left to their own devices.

Stabilising these designs requires either active control systems, or the addition of sails and tails that act as aerodynamic dampers.

Using jellyfish as one inspiration, the researchers set out to achieve stable hovering using flapping wings alone.

They developed a 10cm prototype with four distinct wings that demonstrated an inherent tendency to remain upright during flight.

“In the future, small-scale flapping-wing aircraft may be used in applications ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance missions to traffic and air quality monitoring,” the researchers write in Interface journal.

They added that the flying machine they had developed was a step towards such a device.

“Depending on the application, active control over an intrinsically unstable design may be more desirable than passive stability,” Ristroph and Childress added.

“In all cases, understanding the inherent flight dynamics is important for devising the control schemes needed for manoeuvring and for keeping upright and on-course in the face of unexpected disturbances.”

Brain doping common in amateur sport

The abuse of medicines intended for cognitive enhancement is significant among amateur athletes.

Taking substances to enhance the brain is more popular among amateur athletes than taking drugs to boost the body.

Researchers in Germany found that 15% of recreational triathletes admitted to brain doping, using prescription medicines that increase attention.

Some 13% of competitors reported using physical enhancers like steroids or human growth hormone.

Brain doping is more popular say the scientists, because many of the substances aren’t banned.

The research has been published in the journal Plos One.

“Start Quote

There seems to be a certain proportion of our society that is willing to take a bit more of a risk to gain an advantage”

Prof Perikles Simon University of Mainz

Previous studies have shown that, among amateur competitors, the use of performance-enhancing substances is widespread.

This new work used the responses of almost 3,000 triathletes taking part in events in Germany, to analyse the broader picture of physical and cognitive doping.

Researchers believe that many so-called “smart drugs” are being widely used to enhance mental functions outside the patients groups they have been designed to help.

They are also concerned that competitors in a variety of sports may be using these substances to gain an edge.

What is brain enhancement?So called “smart” drugs that can improve mental function have become popular in recent years. A number of substances have been developed that can improve concentration, attention, memory and cognition.

Methylphenidate: Known by the brand names Ritalin and Concerta among others. It is a psychostimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Prescriptions for these drugs increased by 50% in the six years from 2007.

Modafinil: This medicine is used to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy. The drug helps people stay awake and improves alertness and the ability to concentrate.

In the study, participants were asked whether they had used physical or brain-enhancing substances in the past 12 months. Overall, 13% said they had taken drugs like EPO, steroids, or growth hormones.

When it came to brain enhancement, 15.1% said they had used products including amphetamines, or medicines like modafinil or methylphenidate. Significantly more men than women admitted to both types of doping.

Realistic rate

Between 1% and 2% of athletes in elite sport return positive tests, according to figures from the World Antidoping Agency (Wada), though officials admit this is likely to be an understatement.

In baseball, up to 8% of major league players have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescribed medications. Many critics feel that this is brain doping in action, as the medications can improve baseball players’ concentration.

However, amateur athletic competition is very different.

“We were not too surprised at the extent of cognitive doping,” said Prof Perikles Simon, from the University of Mainz, one of the authors.

“I think it is quite realistic and it goes hand-in-hand with the prevalence rates that have been found in the US at the college level.”

The scientists were interested to find a high crossover between athletes who used both forms of doping. They believe that there is a spectrum of substance use that can include legal enhancements such as nutritional supplements.

Athletes who show a “general propensity to enhance” can end up taking illegal and dangerous materials.

Kelli White
American sprinter Kelli White tested positive for the stimulant, modafinil, at the World Championships in 2003

“There is some searching for additional help, we found a strong connection between those taking legal cognitive enhancers and those taking illicit ones,” said Prof Simon.

“There seems to be a certain proportion of our society that is willing to take a bit more of a risk to gain an advantage.”

A question of substanceThe authors accept that getting to a precise definition of what constitutes doping is difficult. They tried to be as clear as possible in their questions on the different types of enhancement.

Physical doping: Have you used substances which can only be prescribed by a doctor, are available in a pharmacy, or can be bought on the black market (such as anabolic steroids, erythropoietin, stimulants, growth hormones) to enhance your physical performance during the last 12 months?

Cognitive doping: Have you used substances which can only be prescribed by a doctor, are available in a pharmacy, or can be bought on the black market (such as caffeine tablets, stimulants, cocaine, methylphenidate, modafinil, beta-blockers) to enhance your cognitive performance during the last 12 months?

The authors believe that the sporting status of cognitive enhancement may be affecting the attitudes of some of these amateur sports participants.

Athletes are aware that physical doping is forbidden and drug testing is common in triathlon competitions, including amateur ones.

However the use of cognitive substances is not associated with sanctions and therefore abusing them may seem a lesser infringement.

The researchers believe this reflects attitudes in society where the taking of ADHD medicine doesn’t carry the same stigma as using steroids.

The authors say their research leaves many unanswered questions about brain doping.

Prof Simon said: “On the cognitive level, we don’t know enough about these substances. Is there is a hyper performance effect?”

“What we know is that if you are a patient you are going to perform better than before, but if you are already a high-level performer we don’t know if there is an effect. That’s the big question.”

The researchers warn that, regardless of the enhancement, abusing brain doping substances can have damaging impacts in the long run.

Why criminal twins may no longer be safe

Why criminal twins may no longer be safe

Australia heat prompts fire alerts

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