The sets Mark Reaney builds for plays aren't tangible, and sometimes you can see right through them.
Reaney's work in virtual reality has put the Kansas University theater professor at the forefront of the nascent art form. Although he is pushing the boundaries in theater, virtual or computer-generated reality is now commonplace in combat simulation, workplace training and video games.
"It is in some ways kind of pass Reaney said. "Industry, places like that, they don't even talk about it any more, it's such a normal way of doing business. When we do it, it still generates a lot of interest."
At the KU Institute for the Exploration of Virtual Realities, Reaney is among the relatively few artists nationwide who are exploring virtual reality in theater. In addition to shows at KU, Reaney's scenes have been used in Oklahoma, England and at a theater festival in St. Louis.
Virtual reality scenes are created on computers and then projected behind the actors. The scenes can be manipulated throughout a performance, allowing much greater flexibility than traditional sets.
Reaney first used computers to help design sets, but realized construction could be avoided if the virtual designs were turned into something that could be projected.
"We found out that we could make models that we could actually walk through on the computer," he said. "That seemed better than anything else and finally, we just ended up projecting them behind the actors."
Last summer, Reaney designed the virtual scenes for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the University of Kent, England.
"It didn't get much publicity around here, but actually that was one of the biggest things we've done," Reaney said.
The productions, while easy on the traditional set shop, are by no means simple to produce.
"We can't just throw these things together," he said. "We have to plan, marshal our resources."
So far, seven plays using virtual sets have been produced at KU. The most recent was the KU Theatre for Young Children play "Dinosaurus," performed last spring. Reaney doesn't have plans for a production this year, but said he would like to eventually work with opera, where the supernatural elements of virtual reality would blend with the traditionally unrealistic story lines.
"We could do something working with the fantastic elements of opera," he said.
He is also working on a research grant to shoot virtual images onto smoke to create a more three-dimensional effect.
The advantage of virtual reality is that it allows a quick change of backdrop and more freedom to explore different ideas, said Patrick Carriere, a KU doctoral student in theater who directed "Dinosaurus." Additionally, virtual reality may be necessary to attract a crowd raised on television and film, which can quickly cut to different times or locations.
"It really allows the scenic elements to shift as the play moves, not only emotionally but thematically," Carriere said.
But don't expect to see virtual actors any time soon.
"However much virtual reality expands and allows us to explore new realms in interpreting, it still can't take the place of fundamentals of theater," Carriere said. "Otherwise, it's not theater. It's something else."