Dystopian Virtual Reality Is Finally Here

A girl with a VR headset outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Today Oculus VR, the virtual-reality hardware company Facebook acquired for $2 billion in 2014, releases its flagship headset, the Oculus Rift. In so doing, it launches the era of commercial virtual reality, capping three decades of dreams, prototypes, false starts, and retreats into industrial specialization. Rift isn’t alone: Later this year, Sony plans to ship its $399 PlayStation VR, a headset for use with its popular home console. And the Vive, a collaboration between the Taiwanese hardware manufacturer HTC and the American software company Valve, is also expected to appear in 2016. Cheaper options are available, too, including Gear VR, Oculus’s $100 Samsung Galaxy smartphone VR attachment. And then there’s Google Cardboard, a cheap, paper VR housing for a smartphone that you can buy for $15. After decades of experiments and false starts, it would appear that commercial VR is finally here.

But a question remains: What is commercial virtual reality, anyway, and how does it relate to the decades-old science fictional dreams of VR? The answer is that it doesn’t, but that’s no comfort. We might be in for a far stranger future than our previous dystopic nightmares ever imagined.

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Immersive displays hearken back to panorama paintings and stereoscopes of the 19th century—not to mention the ViewMaster toy, a set of binoculars for viewing circular photo slides, which first appeared in 1939. Still, those devices mostly share a common relationship to VR because human vision is binocular. The Sensorama, a stereoscopic, immersive, personal movie theater of the 1950s, is the first true precursor to VR entertainment today, for it embraced the sensory immersion—sight, touch, even smell—that would become a trademark of VR hype. Still, Sensorama was non-interactive: Viewers watched movies of things like motorcycles racing. That changed when the first head-mounted displays appeared by the early 1960s, including the Philco Headsight, a device used mostly for military surveillance that incorporated head-tracking for panning the camera source around the scene it observed.

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By the mid-60s, the computer-graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland described a concept, sometimes called the “Ultimate Display,” that would form the basis for later VR apparatuses, including the Oculus Rift and its brethren. Sutherland’s idea seems obvious in retrospect, but nothing of the sort had existed before nor was feasible at the time he imagined it: a computer-rendered 3-D virtual world viewed through a head-mounted display, with tactical and audio feedback, and user interaction.

The name “virtual reality” didn’t become popular until the 1980s, when Jaron Lanier’s visual programming lab (VPL) began using the term for his company’s headsets, gloves, and related paraphernalia. The head-mounted displays were heavy and expensive, running tens of thousands of dollars at the time (the equivalent of well over $100k today).

But if virtual reality was conceived in the ‘60s and born in the ‘80s, it came of age in the 1990s. Not commercially—although not for lack of trying. SEGA and Nintendo, the gaming rivals from this era of the console wars, released VR devices in the mid-90s, both of which flopped catastrophically. No, the ‘90s were important for VR because that decade’s media set the terms for the fantasy of virtual reality.

Star Trek: The Next Generation had already introduced the holodeck back in 1987, but the simulation chamber bears more in common with what we call augmented reality today: computer-generated experiences that overlay themselves atop the ordinary world. The holodeck still inspires new devices, including the Microsoft HoloLens, a technology capable of displaying holographic projections for the bearer of a special set of goggles, and the mysterious, well-funded startup Magic Leap, which appears to project computer graphics directly into the user’s retina.

The holodeck and its progeny promise a temporary world, separate from but contiguous with the real world. But VR always promised to replace the real world. Sensory immersion set the stage for the implied or actual transformation of the human world into the machine world. VR, in other words, is fundamentally untrustworthy of “meatspace,” and it ultimately seeks to suspend or supersede it with an alternative reality.

Media of the 1990s, particularly film, was obsessed with virtual reality as alternative reality—and often as dystopia. In the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, for example, an intellectually disabled man named Jobe becomes the subject of a researcher’s experiments to increase the intelligence of apes using virtual reality. Eventually, Jobe becomes telekinetic and uploads himself into the computer network, overcoming the limitations of the human world.

Like The Lawnmower Man, most films of the ‘90s that address VR imply a deviance or danger in the technology. Sensory immersion implied the potential abandonment or absconding of humanity. Take Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days, set in a fictional Los Angeles of the turn of the millennium (that’s 1999, back then). An illegal device called a SQUID or Superconducting Quantum Interference Device can record information directly from the brain, which another viewer can play back from a “deck,” encountering all of the recorder’s mental and physical sensations. Amplified SQUID signals can “cook off” their viewers, rendering them brain-dead—the film’s not-so-subtle rendition of overdose, which also connects SQUID to the dangers and prohibitions of narcotics. The film’s plot revolves around solving a series of murders captured on SQUID discs.

Fast forward to 1999, when David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ updated his 1983 classic Videodrome for the age of computer games. The earlier film had left the cognitive coupling of media and mind ambiguous, the ultimate source of the title program’s televisual reprogramming of viewers shrouded in conspiracy. But eXistenZ is more direct. Its characters couple to bio-pods that grant them access to increasingly self-referential roles in the VR ecosystem—game-pod manufacturing workers, for example—as an allegory for the increasing confusion of reality and virtuality. And of course, in the Wachowskis’ 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, humanity itself is imprisoned in a virtual-reality version of the 20th century by the sentient machines that rebelled against us, their inventors. The Matrix is the ultimate rendition of VR as existential threat, where the very idea of reality is undermined by the possibility that it might be a simulation.

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In 1990s science fiction, virtual reality always suggests a fully separate, other reality into which human agents melt and disappear, whether through death, rapture, or suspension between the two. VR was a complete reality that subsumes “real” reality—or at least threatens to do so. But the great irony of today’s real virtual reality is that it bears no risk of overcoming and dispensing of real reality. VR, it turns out, is far less holistically immersive than our dreams (and nightmares) of it have ever been.

Films like The Matrix, eXistenZ, Strange Days, and even 1990’s Total Recall all assume that virtualized reality requires implanting cognitive information directly, or else directly coupling the human body to a technological apparatus capable of mainlining neural information directly into the human brain. But devices like Oculus Rift do something far more ordinary, if still remarkable.

In truth, Jaron Lanier and his colleagues had almost everything figured out back in the mid-1980s. The combination of binocular display, head-tracking, and user input is exactly what Oculus, Vive, and the other devices offer, albeit at varying levels of complexity. The main innovation that makes VR possible today is not neural implants, but cheap, light, high-resolution displays with fast refresh rates.

The result is both magical and entirely ordinary. The VR of lore is predicated on the fullest implementation of sensory immersion—to the point that the humans in The Matrix would never even know their reality is the construction of a simulation. But today’s actual VR is highly and obviously mediated. Like using a ViewMaster or inserting one’s head into the Sensorama, to don an Oculus Rift is to wear a piece of machinery that alters and transforms one’s perception in a manner that requires the user to understand that such a perceptual transformation is taking place. VR is actually just a media experience you choose to partake of—after spending hundreds of dollars for the privilege.

And when you do, you can’t help but notice that you’re doing so. Even with fast-refresh, high resolution displays, VR still makes many people motion sick. That’s partly because many VR games and environments attempt to create a sense of vertiginous motion as a part of the experience. When wearing a headset, there’s no external reference point to help orient the user, all the contents of the experience are made from computer graphics, and the movements implied by the simulated experience do not correspond with those the player experiences, sitting there at a desk or on a couch.

One way to combat such distress is to create a point of reference inside the virtual world. Rendering a false, CG nose is one effective solution, because it helps diffuse the effects of sensory conflict. Another is to build the experience itself around the equivalent of a virtual nose: something like a helmet or a cockpit. One of Oculus’s launch titles is Eve: Valkyrie, a space dogfight shooter game that puts the player inside the cockpit of a vessel. Another is ADR1FT, a near-earth-orbit space station escape game that might be best described as a playable version of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 film Gravity. In both cases, a persistent, simulated glass enclosure both situates players and gives them something clear and obvious to control—and something that is not themselves, but a surrogate. In Darknet, a cyberpunk hacking game for Oculus Rift, the game’s makers have opted for an abstract representation of cyberspace as a floating map of linked nodes positioned in front of a stationary operator. It firmly plants virtual players’ physical bodies in the same place as their virtual ones.

If fictional virtual reality was all about putting the actual self in another, secondary reality that would risk becoming primary, real virtual reality entails adopting simulated embodiment in another “cockpit,” even if not a literal one. In this respect, the best fictional counterparts to today’s VR weren’t Lawnmower Man or The Matrix, at all, with their wholesale cocooning.

Instead, VR is a means of alternate, but deliberate embodiment. One of the most prescient takes on this virtual habitation can be found in Strange Days, amidst the quick-cuts of SQUID decks that introduce the viewer to the technology. Among them: VR porn, in which young women record sexual encounters, showers, and related carnal events for later replay, presumably by men. But even these scenes are more virtually real than today’s VR. If the film’s conceit is to be believed, the viewer of a XXX SQUID deck would not only see but also feel the sexual experience, something that might actually make SQUID sex create empathy and understanding rather than just titillation.

Of course, so-called “POV” or point-of-view porn has been around for some time. Even the 1950s Sensorama screened films called Belly Dancer and A Date with Sabina. Today, the porn website Pornhub has already launched a special VR-film channel. If that’s not arousing enough for you, an adult VR game “controller” may also become available (please don’t click that link).

But the old chestnut about all technology starting with porn notwithstanding, POV sex is particularly compatible with today’s VR largely because the experience of VR is so highly mediated—because it makes its apparatus visible rather than making it disappear. Nobody will ever feel like they’re really fucking in VR, but only that they are embodying the head of some other, more capable or fortunate soul by whose agency the actual virtual coitus comes to pass. (This, by the way, is all I can ever think of when I see the many official and unofficial photos of bearded men wearing Oculus Rifts.)

In that respect, perhaps there is still one 1990s pop culture reference that does prefigure the age of VR that we are about to enter: Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich. The absurd premise of the film—that a secret portal in between the floors of an office building leads into the head of the actor John Malkovich—actually bears startling similarity to the actual experience of contemporary virtual reality. VR isn’t about being fooled into thinking that you’re in another reality, even if the Oculus and its ilk do effectively trick your animal brain into believing that you are somewhere else. No, VR is about occupying another agency, as if you were inside it like a pilot in a cockpit, controlling it at a remove. It’s no accident that John Cusak’s character in Being John Malkovich was a puppeteer. VR is a kind of puppeteering, in which the user deploys a weird, imperfect apparatus to shepherd a strange, lifeless creature or machine through scenarios. And those scenarios are interesting precisely because they are accomplished through that flawed apparatus, not because they trick you into thinking that you are somewhere else.

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Puppeteers or no, there’s another reason why virtual reality won’t be the dream or the nightmare vision science fiction prepared us for: We might already be living in a far worse computer nightmare anyway.

William Gibson’s science fiction is often cited as a source that prefigures VR. But his notion of “cyberspace,” made popular by his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was agnostic of the form that online computer networks would take in the future, dystopian or not. A “collective hallucination,” he called cyberspace. Cyberpunk was never coextensive with VR, even if the style clearly inspired VR-oriented science fiction of the 1990s.

Even before VR comes into play, we most certainly do already experience a collective hallucination, and perhaps even at the level of imprisonment that The Matrix foresaw: you and me and all of us, tethered to our laptops and our smartphones, jacked in to the implants permanently melded with our hands. The sky is the color of television not because the firmament above Gibson’s Sprawl is gray, but because we never look up from our glass and aluminum devices to see the heavens anyway. Who needs to, when the cool blue-pill glow of the screen can reproduce infinite skies at will.

It turns out we already virtualized reality without the headsets and gloves. The real virtual reality, the one we dreamed of and feared two decades ago, the one we are stuck in without even knowing we’re inside it—is in our hands and our pockets, and in our buzzing brains and our nervous nerves desperate to jack back into it.

What foresight Facebook had in scooping up Oculus VR. The one thing a company that deals in constant hums of low-fidelity information provisioning and data extraction needs is a set of distractions, Matrix-style, to help insure its resources don’t become disenchanted with their circumstances. We shouldn’t even call it “virtual reality.” It’s no overwhelming sensory immersion experience that fully and completely transports you to another world. It’s something far more obvious, and far more mundane, and perhaps even far more terrifying: VR is just television for the computer junkie.