With several major technology brands finally bringing their virtual reality systems to the public this year, many consumers are wondering if these immersive headsets will live up to the hype.
Oculus Rift, Sony’s PSVR and the HTC Vive all have impressive demonstration videos of what their VR experiences are like. But the truth is that you’ll never really know if VR is for you until you try it first hand. Until more people try VR out, the public’s relationship to the platform will be tentative at best.
But what if at least one of these companies got it right. And what if that well received VR execution leads to a mainstream shift that rapidly plunges a large portion of the population into endless hours of virtual life?
It sounds far-fetched until you realize that, before 2007, it was rare to see someone shuffling around in public with their head buried in a smartphone, oncoming traffic and other pedestrians be damned. Technology that transforms the very manner in which we operate in the physical world is not science fiction, it’s reality.
Along those lines, we decided to look back at some of the most interesting cinematic takes on virtual reality that might may offer some clues as to how we’ll fare if VR really does take off. Some are outlandish, while others are chillingly realistic. But whichever version you think might have a foothold in our real future, ignoring the fact that at least one of these VR scenarios might actually come to pass (in one form or another), is probably a bad idea.
1. The Lawnmower Man — 1992
One of the most memorable early takes on VR came roughly 24 years ago with the release ofLawnmower Man. The 1992 film takes us into a world in which a mentally challenged man (Jobe) is reintroduced to the world through VR environments that gradually improve his intelligence and (magically!) his power over all computer connected devices around the world. But despite the leap Jobe takes into master of all tech, the notion of VR as a therapy tool is already beginning to take hold.
Researchers from the University College London (UCL) and ICREA-University of Barcelona believe that VR therapy can help to relieve some subjects of depression symptoms. That’s just one study, but as the nonprofit world continues to look to VR to produce immersive documentaries that inspire empathy for various groups in need, it’s becoming clear that VR has the power to change the way we feel. That’s not mind control over machines, but that’s still pretty powerful.
2. Virtuosity — 1995
For some reason, 1995 was a big year for films with a VR angle. Unfortunately, Virtuosity had little to do with the technology other than a VR-made super villain (Russell Crowe) who gets fabricated into a real world criminal to do battle with a human cop (Denzel Washington). Fun if you’re a fan of those two talented actors during their anything-for-a-paycheck days, but light fare if you’re looking for good VR sci-fi.
All that said, as 3D printers continue to come down in price, and it’s as easy as pointing your smartphone at a real world object to create a 3D-printable object, it’s inevitable that someone will give us 3D-printable VR products. But those objects probably won’t have consciousness and a blood lust for human destruction (we hope).
3. Strange Days — 1995
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days does an amazing job of showing what it might be like to use technology to experience the physical and visual memories of others. Like Virtuosity, the film is set in 1999 Los Angeles and its characters use a head-mounted device called a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) to jack into the recorded lives of others.
A cult film in terms of popularity, it nevertheless delivered a visceral dip a world in which living out the first-person experiences of others is common. We are already seeing the beginning of this with the rise in 360-degree sports video, and a new film called Hardcore Henry promises to give us an entire story from the view of its protagonist. We can’t duplicate the other, non-visual sensory components yet, but really, that seems like just a matter of time.
4. Johnny Mnemonic — 1995
Based on the novel of the same name by William Gibson, the film offers a wealth of science fiction visuals, slang and imagined technology. But what’s most intriguing for current VR fans is how close to real VR systems the gear looks.
This early attempt at playing a master of VR also sort of cements Keanu Reeves (who also starred in The Matrix) as our modern VR icon in a pre-VR-cinema landscape. Kind of like Charlie Chaplin before films had sound, Reeves hints at the next cinematic era to come: immersive film experiences. Beyond that, the plot of Johnny Mnemonic is mostly a mess and doesn’t do justice to the book. But it deserves mention if only for the best past guess at what a real, widely available VR set-up might look like in the future.
5. The Matrix — 1999
This is the gold standard of VR depictions. From bullet time, to real-time glitches indicating changes to the environment, The Matrix remains the richest, most fascinating deep dive into a fully realized virtual environment we’ve seen. Perhaps the reason few people think of The Matrix as a VR film is the fact that the plot involves linking humanity to a VR environment as slaves rather than as willing participants.
Sure there are things in the film you can criticize as unrealistic: instantaneous Kung Fu skills uploaded to your brain, human bodies that can remain effectively inactive for years while hooked into VR and then quickly function in the real world after unplugging, and death in VR resulting in death in the real world. There’s a lot of non-science-y magic in this film’s universe. But as a look at what VR might be like with no computer processor limitations and zero latency, The Matrix is The One.
6. The Thirteenth Floor — 1999
Like The Matrix, this film was released in 1999 (another big year for VR films), but the plot is so convoluted and the execution so poor next to The Matrix that it’s better to view it through a crime mystery lens than as a peek at VR. However, what the film does highlight is just how fascinated we are with the idea of using VR to do something even further out of reach — time travel back into another time.
Currently, passively viewed shows like Mad Men and Deadwood are some of our best paths into the past, but VR will soon allow us to take entire vacations in places like ancient Rome and the frontier West with robed philosophers and gun-slinging cowboys. The first real world iterations will likely be through gaming, like Oculus Rift’s Dead and Buried. But full-on, immersive period-centric experiences are coming, just give it time.
7. eXistenZ — 1999
More of a fever dream than what you might normally consider VR, 1999’s eXistenZ is David Cronenberg’s take on VR technology in a world where you actually have to modify your body to jack into the experience. As with other Cronenberg classics like Videodrome and Scanners, the focus here is more on oddly sexualized body horror rather than geeking out on VR. In this film, even the VR devices are obscene, throbbing muscles inviting you into transgressive faux reality. That’s not a metaphor, by the way.
But there are a few scenes in the film involving retail VR accessories, and even a trip to a VR bootleg shop, that make this worth viewing at least once. Remember, there was a day, not too long ago, that if you walked into a gas station and asked where the smartphone cases were you’d get a strange look from the cashier. If things progress as they currently are, stopping at 7-11 to pick up a Google Cardboard VR device is probably just months away.
8. The Congress — 2013
Not widely known, the limited release The Congress, starring Robin Wright (House of Cards) as herself might be one of the darkest visions of VR we’ve seen. It starts with an aging actress making one last attempt to cash in by digitizing herself for future, computer-generatedperformances. [Spoilers ahead] Later, Wright enters a drug-fueled world in which people share an animated virtual reality while their real bodies wander aimlessly through abandoned ruins.
Although powered by drugs more than tech, the shared virtual environment, which many exist in for years in the film, previews a tantalizing, yet dystopian vision of the kind of freedom living full lives in VR could offer.
It may seem like we’re not even close to such a scenario in which masses willingly drop out of the real world and opt to live as their idealized selves in a shared reality. But popular MMOs(massively multiplayer online games) are proof to the contrary. Online gaming communities that give us alternate identities already suck up a huge amount of time for many gamers, and they’re only growing in popularity.
The world of The Congress is definitely the worst-case scenario if you enjoy the imperfections of real life. But for many others, VR MMOs could very well spell the end of meaningful real world interactions that many will argue are better than reality. When that happens, this will all move from science fiction-meets-tech speculation and move into the realm of serious conversations about the social welfare of technology-obsessed users.
Honorable mention must go to the very first episode of The Twilight Zone, which aired on October 2, 1959. The episode, “Where Is Everybody?”, featured a man who spends the entire episode in a fully realized, but empty town. Later, we learn that it was all in his mind, brought about by spending extended time in an isolation tank to simulate the effects of an upcoming solo mission to the moon.
While not true VR as we know it, that fact that television’s most renowned science fiction series began with a tale of a virtual environment, which threatened to rob a man of his sanity, is a fascinating presage of our unfolding tech present. In that respect, we would do well to remember that VR is not just another technology tool, it’s something that may change the very way we think about the real world.