Behind the curtain at Google's Cirque du Soleil show

Google's HTML5 acrobatics with Cirque du Soleil lead to challenges both artistic and technical, and force both to spread their wings just a little bit more than usual.

Dive into Cirque du Soleil's Web show, Movi.Kanti.Revo

Google Chrome and Cirque du Soleil have partnered to show off the potential of the modern Web with an all-HTML5 Cirque performance that's unique to the Web, called Movi.Kanti.Revo.

The name comes from the Esperanto terms for moving, singing, and dreaming, according to the official Movi.Kanti.Revo Google announcement, and the experience does go to great lengths to create a dreamlike world on the Web. During different scenes of Movi .Kanti.Revo (pronounced MOOV-ee CANT-ee REEV-oh), you can interact with the site by moving your body or speaking to your computer. If that sounds a lot like Microsoft's Kinect to you, you're not alone.

But unlike Microsoft's proprietary motion-sensing technology, Movi.Kanti.Revo is fully built in HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript -- the same tools that power many modern Web sites and a growing number of mobile apps.

Cirque du Soleil's Gillian Ferrabee, creative director for images and special projects, couldn't recall precisely how Google and Cirque decided to partner, but said that she was instantly impressed with the first meeting between the two companies. "Interactivity and the [Webcam] reading your body were discussed in the first meeting with Google and Particle," which is the third-party company that built Movi.Kanti.Revo, she said.

"We thought, 'How can we be playful with that?' We wanted to make it fun to participate, rather than a challenge."

From the Cirque offices in Montreal, Canada, Ferrabee described Movi.Kanti.Revo as a typical Cirque production, in some ways. You're invited into a magical world by a tour guide who speaks in a made-up language, who invites you through a series of tableaus such as a forest, a desert, and a tree of life. "You have a certain control over each of those environments. It's a message of joy and hope and play and the beauty of life," she said, and it takes about 10 minutes to explore.

Thanks to HTML5, Movi.Kanti.Revo will respond to your body motion. Open-source Kinect in your browser, anybody?

(Credit: Google)

Pete LePage, a developer advocate for Google's Chrome team, explained that the project came from Google's ongoing interest in creating Chrome Experiments to showcase what Chrome and the modern Web are capable of. The best-known of these to date is probably Google's collaboration with the band The Arcade Fire on an interactive music video called, "The Wilderness Downtown."

Unlike that experiment, though, which caught some flack for possibly containing code that prevented it from working properly on browsers that would've otherwise supported it, LePage said that Google wanted to make sure that this one works across all browsers.

"We tried on this one to make sure it works across browsers, so for CSS transforms we coded for all the available browsers," he said. Movi.Kanti.Revo code does have browser-specific flags for CSS transforms, but that was just to ensure that browsers that haven't yet built full support for the technology can support it as it comes online, LePage said.

Movi.Kanti.Revo will work on most tablets and some smartphones, too, said LePage, because it supports deviceOrientation and deviceMotion, so your device's accelerometer will respond to motion instead of your body.

While Google and Particle handled the technical side, Ferrabee had worries about conveying the performance through a shallow piece of glass. "One of the concerns was that the charisma or the magic wouldn't read on the screen. That's always a concern when you move to the screen -- will you lose the kinesthetic sense of the performer?

Cirque's interest in making a Web-based version of their shows dovetailed with Google's interest in showing off modern Web standards, with Chrome as the platform. "Cirque wanted to start building a show that lived beyond their normal performances, and we wanted to use stuff that's just coming online, such as HTML5 and CSS3." Specifically, he said, "we talked about the getUserMedia API to get access to the users' Webcam and microphone."

CSS3 3D Transforms leverage your device's graphics card to render complicated graphics smoothly.

(Credit: Google)

The new HTML5 API getUserMedia, LePage explained, becomes far more useful with WebRTC, a new open-source JavaScript API that allows for real-time communications (RTC) through the Web browser when you give it permission to do so. It allows for the browser to control your computer's Webcam and microphone, and it contains a "communication protocol" that allows media to be sent from and received by your computer.

WebRTC has a lot of modern media tools built-in, like support for high-quality audio and video, lost strain compensation, and jitter correction. LePage said that it's already in the Firefox nightly builds, and he said that Opera has plans to support it, too.

However, like much of the modern Web, the standard is still developing. "Just landed in Chrome Canary yesterday was response to voice control," he noted.

Beyond the technical challenges of building a robust, interactive site with technology that is still under development, Ferrabee enthusiastically added that Movi.Kanti.Revo was a good learning challenge for Cirque du Soleil, too. "The experience, it's almost like a trompe [l'oiel, a trick of the eye]. So, what Particle and Google created, as well as filming some of the acts with the camera moving, is that it replaces the old 3D. It works, and it feels alive."

There's more to the project than just overcoming technical and artistic challenges. There's the core question of why anybody would care, beyond Web developers and performance art junkies. Ferrabee explained that she cares on a personal level because she finds it "beautiful and exciting," but she thinks people will respond to Movi.Kanti.Revo because of how it brings technology and art together. "The Web is a big part of our lives, and most people are interested in beauty. I think the project opens doors for people creatively and in their imagination, and demonstrates to them what's possible."

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