Brain plague or estate agents? I know which I'd prefer in Virtual Reality

Utopian dreams of the concept's creators blur into crappy reality

Life in a London firm is tough: it’s full of jewel heists, flying bullets and car chases. Well, this was the case during my last foray into Virtual Reality.

London Heist is one of the showcase games for Sony’s PlayStation VR experience from Sony and it’s virtually perfect, making me feel like the lead in a Guy Richie gangster parody.

My own first foray into VR was at the indie game expo Rezzed a couple of years back when I got kitted up with the Oculus Rift to play Alien Isolation and there was a queue round the block.

In 2016 VR, seem at least, ubiquitous as host of indie studios have got in on the action with innovative games such as Giant Cop and The Assembly. Fast and furious Gang Beasts was my firm favourite.

Today there’s a great sense of optimism around VR – that the nuts and blots of the technology and the individual and collective will of tech firms are finally aligned to make it happen. This time.

The application of VR is many and varied, we are told, beyond mere gaming. Microsoft and its partners are pitching HoloLens as a team collaboration “tool” for office workers, NASA designers in manufacturing and a way for estate agents to walk clients through virtual properties.

Google has just released dev tools for its Daydream system, that is now expected next month, with apps also promised from partners from the big corporate news and entertainment brands – CNN, Hulu and Netflix.

The real world in the virtual world. Or the virtual world is the real world.

Excuse me, but this isn’t exactly what I’d call “exciting” – in fact, it’s all a bit boring and it’s not exactly how VR was supposed to be – according to how it’s been portrayed over the years, at least.

After each of my somewhat short and surreal VR sessions what I am left with is a feeling of kinship to poor Christopher Walken in the 1983 film Brainstorm, whose VR recording/playback machine is ultimately nicked by the Military Industrial Complex to be turned into a weapon.

This ominous feeling was completely supported by my reading matter of the time, author Phillip K Dick's classic We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which became triple-boob shocker and Arnie vehicle Total Recall (1990).

That is, that both the technology and the “experience” could leave us with more problems than we bargained for.

Literary reality and flickering myths

As far back as the 1960s there has been a literary consciousness developing around VR, Stanislaw Lem’s I (Profesor Corcoran) (1961) and Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) explored ideas of virtual worlds and whether our own reality could be a simulacrum. It wasn’t until William Gibson’s innovative description of cyberspace in Neuromancer (1984) and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) that I was given a modern VR vocabulary.

The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (2009) prophesises a VR plague in the future, where overly immersive, brain-linked fantasy simulations presented such realism and psychological draw that vast sections of the population become pathologically addicted to them, ultimately losing interest in real life, which precipitates a worldwide breakdown and a subsequent banning of VR.

But it’s Iain M Banks' Surface Detail (2010) and his description of huge illegal servers running virtual hells where human consciousnesses live in eternal torment that stops me getting too excited about Google Cardboard.

Talking of torture, VR shows up in the latest Heroes Reborn with katana girl fighting to release her father from a virtual reality prison. This tradition of dodgy graphics and stupid fights has a glorious history.

But what of films? VR made a false start in several films during the 1990s. The Lawnmower Man (1992) and the flop Johnny Mnemonic (1995) relied on illogical and hackneyed storylines. It wasn’t until the Matrix Trilogy from 1999 onwards that the concept of VR – of living and operating in a world that doesn’t actually exist as you see it – was subsumed into the collective consciousness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s Anime from Japan that has always been on the cutting edge, imagining the moral and societal implications of VR. The trailblazing Ghost in the Shell (1995) now has its own VR experience and is the obvious progenitor to the series Accel World (2012) and its bodily embedded VR kit, affectionately known as a Brain Burster. More recently the multimedia multiplatform franchise hack exploits every VR trope going and has a narrative containing as many tiers as a Shogunate in feudal Japan.

Augmented filth

Possible the most familiar depiction of VR for many was the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Certainly, imagining intimate adventures with Ensign Wesley Crusher was a standard fantasy of my teenage years. Sexual Fantasy VR becomes even makes an appearance in the Star Trek spin of Deep Space 9 and Quarks holosuites.

VR porn reared its head at this year’s CES and was touted as so realistic that 2D porn just wouldn’t cut it any more – but at the detriment of personal space and intimacy. Whoever patents VR Tinder will be an instant VRillionarie, as I suppose there are more than a few singletons who would actually prefer to date someone in a virtual world and then have virtual sex with them.

The fleshy biotechnological umbilical cords/game controllers of David Cronenberg’s Existenz/ (1999) come to mind. Where there’s sex, there’s death and entertainment, as VR and the corporeal mix with bloodcurdling results, in a new genre of VR Interactive Theatre such as Virtually Dead – basically The Walking Dead live. But why even venture out to Shoreditch at all when you can meet your friends –or even strangers – in a VR chatroom? What possible excuse is there to maintain a relationship with the real world at all?

VR has become the now medium rather than the message. VR experiences have become so ubiquitous that there were more than thirty playing at the this year's Sundance film festival’s New Frontier Show, while the South By South West conference and festival hosted its own VR/AR "experience." My Mother’s Wing (2016) is being hailed a watershed in VR as it allows an immersive and ultimately harrowing view of a Palestinian family whose world is a cycle of violence and adversity. Here VR is used to give a voice to the marginalised.

I assume it won’t be long before we find out whether VR is a passing fad or whether it endures. Is this really what VR was meant to be – or how it was depicted it would be, though?

As Douglas Adams once wrote: “Being virtually killed by a virtual laser in a virtual space is just as effective as the real thing, because you are as dead as you think you are.” ®

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