Back To The Virtual Future

image source: VR Source

We live in a brave new world of virtual reality and ‘real’ 3D experiences. The race for full-immersion is on, with big money invested in tech to transport you into a virtual world. It seems some people won’t rest until every home has access to a Star Trek style holodeck. In these heady days of VR pioneering, it’s easy to forget that the seeds were planted long ago. This post looks at early appearances of VR in popular culture that inspired the current gold rush.

Simulated reality is a very powerful idea. It strikes at the heart of the human experience and touches on existential questions about our nature. I’m not suggesting Oculus Rift is going to shed new philosophical light on the writings of Descartes, but it certainly highlights a longstanding human desire to shape our own reality.

Early science fiction novels played with the idea of virtual reality from as early as 1941. Robert A Heinlen’s book ‘They’ tells of a man confined to a mental institution because he believes he is one of the only real people alive and that the rest of the universe has been created by a few others to deceive him. This solipsistic work sets the tone for many early virtual realities. Most are generally dystopian in nature and play heavily on people’s fears of being unable to trust their own senses and the people around them. This theme reoccurs frequently in popular culture.

Phillip K. Dick, took a slightly different tack. In his 1953 novel “The Trouble with Bubbles” we first see the idea of humans creating virtual worlds for others to experience. It is an interesting concept with relevance to the creators of today’s VR experiences. The book fully explores the morality of having total control over the lives of others.

image source: DailyTech

It’s not just books that play with virtual reality. TV and films explore the trope in great detail. One of the first references to VR on TV was, of course, Star Trek. In 1974, long before Captain Picard was flouncing around the holodeck, the crew of the Enterprise has an encounter with an unusual cloud that affects their computer. The ship starts to play practical jokes; including turning the recreation room into a dangerous virtual reality area that almost kills the unfortunates who get stuck there. A far cry from the holodeck’s mainly benign incarnation in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

image source: Front Effects

Tron (1982) is one of the first examples of close human computer interaction in film and of course borrows heavily from computer games for its action scenes. Again, it is a very twisted form of reality with the main character trapped in a computerized world, fighting against the very system he programmed. The VR on display is highly advanced, with full body immersion and the very real possibility of death.

Other films like Lawnmower Man (1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) come closer to the current day experience with headsets and body suits that relay information between user and applications. The Matrix (1999) has a connection straight to the brain that delivers an almost fool-proof illusion of reality. The first two have technology that is either within our grasp or very close, while the direct brain plug of the Matrix is not as far away as you might think. Advances in direct neuro controls for things like prosthetic limbs shows our understanding of the brain is expanding at a rapid rate.

You can bet that the brains behind the current crop of VR are aware of the fiction behind the science. Science fiction has always influenced technology, inviting scientists and engineers to turn the imagination of writers into reality. With the amount of money being invested in the new generation of VR, it’s only a matter of time before more outlandish ideas become reality. At the current pace, we will likely see highly convincing virtual reality with haptic feedback and all senses engaged within our lifetimes.
It is strange that something that is clearly a great fantasy for many people is inspired by popular culture that generally warns of the dangers of the technology. Let’s just hope that science fiction has only predicted the emergence of the tech and not its dystopian themes.
Andy Trowers is a game design consultant, freelance ne’er-do-well and staff writer for