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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.

The romantic pirates return

by Loan Verneau

Crime is sexy. Whatever time era we live in, however civilized we claim to be, breaking the rules has a very romantic appeal to it. Robin hood still appears as a heroic figure to all, and even though the modern pirate character now seen in Hollywood's films has come a long way, even in their time, pirates like Roberto Cofresi were seen as local heroes.


In this situation, it is not surprising to see the modern culture build a romantic construction of the hacker's characters, and their piracy over information. But do modern hackers share more with their historical "brothers" than this? In this clip, we see pirates as young people, using phones and small screens fighting a huge company with hundreds of employees sitting in their chairs, and older security managers using 3D high tech systems. It's the small buccaneer's schooner attacking the huge Spanish Galleon all over again. Or the evil East India Company, supporter by the powerful Royal Navy fighting against pirates from all over the world in "At World's End".


This glamorous vision of freedom with no constraint, of opposition to the system, has been reused many times. In Johnny Mnemonic, the "low techs" still hack the net to diffuse their message. Funny fact coming from people claiming to be "low techs". Another example, in "The Matrix", Trinity and Morpheus are presented as great hackers.


And yet, the main issues of piracy seems to be eluded in most films. We don't see the poverty and the misery that forced many people to become sea pirates. We don't address either the concept of open source, copyrights or real information war between nations and companies. Because by addressing the real issues, we might see how many Somali have reasons to actually raid international commerce along their coast. And how could Hollywood accept any controversy on how copyrights work? So is this romantic construction around "rebel" characters finally not a way to simply hide real issues?

Hacker showdown

by Steve Anderson

In this climactic scene from the 1995 movie Hackers, an international, multi-ethnic network of good hackers defeats the evil systems administrator played by Fisher Stevens, who is threatening to unleash a catastrophic environmental disaster by capsizing oil tankers around the world. This scene includes the film's most extravagant visualizations of what it's like to be inside a networked mainframe computer (wittily named "The Gibson" after sci-fi author William Gibson). In fact, the film is replete with 1990s era geek references including characters from Orwell's 1984 (Emmanuel Goldstein) and "real world" hackers Cereal Killer, Lord Nikon, etc. Although laughably dated in its technofetishism, Hackers is symptomatic of the mid-1990s obsession with computer networks and generational struggles around digital technology. The rag-tag team of rollerblading hackers who organize the attack on Fisher Stevens' mainframe corporate computer also epitomize the shift from mainframe to mobile/incidividual computing, as the hackers shut down transportation throughout New York City by hacking into the traffic control system and turning all lights in the city simultaneously green. In the end, it is only through the efforts of a distributed ad hoc network that the previous generation's control is overcome.

Hackers final showdown

A multi-ethnic, international network of rollerblading teenage hackers defeat a corrupt, corporate systems administrator.

from Hackers (1995)
Creator: Iain Softley
Distributor: United Artists
Posted by Steve Anderson