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The rise and demise of virtual reality

by Critical Commons Manager

It is remarkable how repetitive the tropes of virtual reality are when depicted in commercial cinema of the past three decades. And while the technologies driving VR have evolved, the promise of their actualization and the ways they interface with human bodies has remained relatively static, at least in the cinematic imaginary. The possibility of experiencing illicit, dangerous or forbidden actions give rise to repeated extremes of exoticism, adventure, violence and erotics, relentlessly portrayed through a first-person camera point of view. Another way of looking at it is that VR provides an excuse for Hollywood cinema to simultaneously indulge in the excesses of such visual pleasures, while distancing itself from the technology that is diegetically responsible for presenting such content to audiences.

A cursory survey of movies and TV shows since the early 1980s reveals the inscription and reinscription of standard tropes of VR - complex technological apparatuses that deliver "safe" (but never completely safe!) experiences that we may be denied in everyday life: particularly extremes of violence, sexual pleasure and other kinds of exoticism. The apotheosis of these depictions in American entertainment came in 1995, with the release of more than a half-dozen feature films and TV shows within the space of a few months. Among these, Strange Days, Virtuosity and VR5 all delivered a vision of virtual reality that was indistinguishable from real life -- that is complete sensory, emotional immersion in a world that was entirely generated by a computer. In 1995, if TV and movies were to be believed, the coming generation of VR technology was poised to deliver consumer-level virtual reality that was indistinguishable from the real world. Ellen Strain has termed this phenomenon of the cinematic imaginary "virtual virtual reality," noting that the Hollywood fantasies of VR led to impossibly high expectations in comparison with actually existing virtual reality technologies in the 1990s. So by the time Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995, consumers who paid nearly $200 for the 3D gaming system experienced not sensory immersion but a 2-bit monochromatic LED display with images about the size of a YouTube video.

Nintendo went on to release a limited number of cartridges based on existing Game Boy titles such as Mario Tennis, Bowling, Golf, Baseball, Pinball, Boxing and Tetris. But the primary sensory response from players was a combination of nausea and headaches and The Virtual Boy was discontinued the following year. A year earlier, Sega also discontinued development of its own visor-based VR system, issuing a tongue-in-cheek public explanation that the virtual reality experience had been so realistic that test subjects were injuring themselves by attempting to walk into virtual spaces while wearing the visor. Put bluntly, we can consider the rampant commercial depictions of VR in 1995 as an instance of the movie industry launching a highly effective attack against the gaming industry, successfully raising consumer expectations to the level of big-budget Hollywood feature films.

Subsequent years saw the rapid decline of commercial viability for Virtual Reality in the decade after 1995; development funds that had been channeled to VR labs at Atari and NASA Ames were eclipsed by the frenzy of speculative investment in the Internet, leading to the dotcom bubble and subsequent collapse just five years later. To overstate the case only slightly, "virtual virtual reality" on TV and in movies *killed* real virtual reality as a medium for commercial entertainment in the mid 1990s.

Difference, Virtual Reality, and the Touristic Gaze

by Jason Lipshin

In his article “Getting the Reality You Deserve,” Julian Bleeker charts the relationship between dystopian representations of futuristic cities in recent science fiction films and contemporary anxieties about race in the urban context. Pointing to bleak depictions of city space in films such as Blade Runner (1982) and Demolition Man (1993), he contends that the feelings of paranoia surrounding the perceived decline of urban space in the genre are intimately related to the racialized image of the city as a place of criminality and social unrest, particularly after the 1992 riots incited by the Rodney King trials. However, while these paranoid impressions of the city as a place of danger are certainly important to understanding the ways in which contemporary anxieties about race show up as a present, but relatively unmarked term in futuristic scenarios, a full understanding of how race operates in these films must also take into account its paradoxical relation to desire. For as bell hooks' article “Eating the Other” so clearly articulates, the racialized other is never just the object of fear, disgust, and danger, but also the simultaneous object of desire (especially in the post-civil rights context, although this is true throughout colonial history). Seen within this framework, the ghettoized urban environment becomes a playground for exotic, though dangerous adventures – the lure of criminality, death, and racial otherness gains an erotic charge for the white subject, even as he continues to fear them.


For hooks, so-called multicultural consumption becomes a problematic way to “solve” this fundamental contradiction in the white subject’s experiences of race and place. Eating the other, thus, operates as an exotic  “seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 21) while allowing the consumer to ignore the various inconveniences and oppressive power relations that come with a marginalized subject positioning. In these two clips, virtual reality clearly extends and exacerbates this tradition. As a technology of consumption, it simulates for the user the thrill of encountering danger, luridness, and difference, but it divorces the experience from any real sense of consequence or historical context. For instance, in this clip from Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), executives testing virtual reality for the first time in their board room experience the technology as a kind of tourism pandering to white, masculine desires: driving off the side of a cliff and shots of scantily clad women are juxtaposed with panoramic views of Rio de Janeiro. Thus, by the very nature of the technology’s affordances, the VR user is able to simulate the thrill of adventure or danger but from a position of safety – in particular, the idea of Rio de Janeiro as a vista abstracted from the reality of poverty and crime at the level of its inhabitants speaks to this idea of virtual reality as a racialized, touristic consumption of urban space.


 In the clip from Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), we are given an even clearer picture of how VR serves to resolve the contradiction of fear and desire for the racialized other. Raving to a potential customer about the freedom inherent in being able to try on different identities, the character Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) describes a series of VR scenarios which provide the user with a taste of “forbidden fruit.” Moving fluidly between the thrill of committing a crime, to having sex with a girl or a guy, to even temporarily inhabiting the body of a teenage girl taking a shower, virtual reality in Strange Days provides the user the attractive potential of trying out “the stuff you can’t have” but without any strings attached. Consistent with hooks and Bleeker’s contentions, the prototypical user in this clip is a white, well-off business man looking to use VR technology as a “vicarious aid” (Bleeker 19) to his most lurid desires, without any chance of “tarnishing [his] wedding ring” or disrupting his position within the social hierarchy. By being with and even temporarily becoming the other, the user wants to feel the excitement of bonking a Filipina prostitute or robbing a liquor store, “adrenaline pumping through [his] brain,” while still keeping a safe position of distance from the abject, racialized urban environment.


These representations of virtual reality, thus, remediates our typical ideas about cinematic voyeurism by extending the practice into a kind of identity tourism which is mired in contemporary gender, racial, and geopolitical inequalities.  Although the experience of VR as a first-person POV shot in both Brainstorm and Strange Days remains curiously impotent, and thus, extremely cinematic (Galloway Ch. 2), the idea of temporarily immersing and inhabiting oneself in another body clearly points to the experience of controlling and identifying with an avatar in video games. While many have argued that such a process of fluid identity construction and performance may allow the user to encounter, better understand, and identify with difference (Stone), these two clips remind us that virtual reality can also act as a kind of exploitative consumption, flattering the user with the erotic lure of the other from a position of touristic distance.

Works Cited

Bleeker, Julian. "Getting the Reality You Deserve." CTCS 505 Course Reading.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End

Press, 1992, 21-39.

Galloway, Alex. "Ch. 2 - Origins of the First Person Shooter" in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of

Minnesota Press, 2006, 39-69.  

Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. The war of desire and technology at the close of the

mechanical age. MIT Press, 1996. Print.  


Brainstorm - Executive Test 2

The wonders of virtual reality are revealed through stereotypes of exoticism, adventure and eroticism via head mounted display

from Brainstorm (1983)
Creator: Douglas Trumbull
Distributor: MGM
Posted by Critical Commons Manager