This VR-theater mashup of A Christmas Carol jolted a shriek out of me

As a chain-laden ghost, I lumber through slices of moonlight in a dark, fire-lit room. I morph into a demonic specter, arching and slumping my massive frame around a pauper's kitchen, before I re-materialize as a faceless floating apparition, taking you by the hand through a snow-covered graveyard.

At least, that's what I would look like to you. In your Oculus Rift headset, I became the main character in Chained, an immersive VR reimagining of A Christmas Carol and one of the hottest tickets in Los Angeles right now.

In real life, I'm dressed head-to-toe in a black bodysuit covered with tiny gray balls that capture my movements, and all I want to do are cartwheels.

Chained is the latest experience experimenting with a new trend in virtual reality that marries motion-capture live performers with scenes, sets and characters that only exist inside each audience member's headset.

"I think of the characters almost like the best costumes you could possible have. You start living in a completely different body," said Michael Bates, the motion-capture actor who plays all of Chained's VR characters. Bates also served as my mo-cap tutor, showing me how he adapts his immersive-theater training into a virtual performance in a behind-the-scenes look at how the creators of Chained make the performances happen.  

VR as immersive theater is the latest twist to one of technology's most overhyped trends. Virtual reality attracted giant investments by heavyweights like Google, Facebook and Samsung, fueling a cycle of buzz that hasn't materialized in the mainstream. Without a gotta-see-it experience, everyday consumers have been indifferent to VR and its expensive, weird gear.

But by piggybacking on the booming popularity of immersive theater, the mix of motion-capture live acting with virtual reality might be a recipe VR has been looking for to serve up something people think is worth paying for.

"Let's be perfectly honest, the word VR is not the sexiest thing to say right now," Justin Denton, the creator of Chained, said this week in an interview. "And that's unfortunate, because there's a lot of amazing VR happening today. This is an area that's barely been touched."

New wave

Only a handful of experiences like Chained exist. Many of them -- like Jack and The Horrifically Real Virtuality -- have made waves among theater, film and VR insiders. But until now, they've been removed from mainstream audiences, sticking to events like film festivals.

Perhaps the most widely seen predecessor to Chained is Carne y Arena, a virtual-reality installation created by Alejandro G. Iñárritu that won the film director a special achievement Oscar this year. Carne y Arena's VR experience doesn't include live acting or motion capture, but it presented VR with a high-art sensibility to a wider audience beyond film festivals: The experience played for months at Los Angeles' LACMA museum and just closed in Washington, DC, in addition to other cities internationally.

But besides high-end rarities like Carne y Arena, location-based VR experiences are "going toward more of a Dave and Busters thing, in between the skee ball and the coin-op machine," said Ethan Stearns, an executive producer of Chained who also produced Carne Y Arena. "Coming at it from an artist's perspective, that bums me out because I think we can do a lot of really impactful things with the art."

In addition to trying to make location-based VR more premium and artistic, Chained's creators wanted to make this kind of immersive VR theater accessible too.

"When things like this happen at film festivals, people read ... about these VR experiences, and they can't ever get to do them," said Stearns. Chained's creators wanted to put on a show "for the community of people who actually want to see this stuff."

Early signs suggest people could clamor for it. Chained doesn't open until Friday at an experiential studio in LA called GreatCo, but its entire five-week run sold out within 48 hours of going on sale last week. The creators not only want to open up more tickets and extend their dates at the current location but also widen this iteration of the experience to more locations. They discussed potentially adapting Chained to be something you experience it in your own home, too.

And there's more to come beyond just Chained. Facebook's Oculus has been developing a similar performance concept.

But for Denton, Chained's director who grew up reading A Christmas Carol every year with his family since he was around 4 years old, the experience was a chance to bring a favorite story to life in a way nobody ever has before.  

"I'm excited to, hopefully, have people say I've really pushed the boundaries of what it can do," Denton said. "And to be inspirational for others to make more work like it."

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