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Real Talk: how bad was nineties VR?

Read Monday, 1 Aug 2016

Through clumsy devices, dystopian sci-fi and misplaced expectations, Clem Bastow revisits the nineties’ dalliances with virtual reality.

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In the early nineties, after much badgering on my part, I convinced my parents to take me and my brother to the virtual reality exhibit that had been set up at the Southgate complex in Melbourne’s touristy Southbank precinct. British VR arcade developers Virtuality Group had brought their game, Dactyl Nightmare, to Australia, and for $5 we could step into the future for a few minutes.

Some of the cooler (read: richer) kids at school had been to the exhibition and come back raving: the quality of the graphics, the excitement of the game, the unmistakable sense that we were teetering on the brink of an unknowable, tech-heavy future. 

Once the date was set – we’d visit on the weekend, on a Saturday morning – I spent the week obsessing over the possibilities ahead of me. Bear in mind, I was a child who thought that, when Canberra’s Questacon centre announced its Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit in the eighties, the magicians at the nation’s finest educational fun factory had actually managed to bring dinosaurs back to life (and I wondered aloud in class what snacks I should bring them).

This was the beginning of a golden era of CGI in film; visual wizardry that had captivated me completely. From the morphing sequences in the George Lucas-produced high-fantasy film Willow (1988) to the digital water of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), cinema’s visual palette was changing in thrilling ways. And, in 1991, the same year our family trooped off to the virtual reality machine, the liquid metal effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day were bamboozling viewers everywhere.

So, I reasoned, surely this virtual reality thing was going to blow my mind; this would be like being in the movie! As it turned out, well: 

That’s not to say that Dactyl Nightmare was necessarily bad. It’s just that I was completely unprepared for, as it were, the realities of virtual reality. Dactyl Nightmare was a multiplayer first-person shoot arcade game with a headset and joystick, which allowed you to run around shooting other players while avoiding a violent pterodactyl. But the headset was confusing, the immersive experience was completely overwhelming, and I got so excited when I finally spotted the pterodactyl flying past me that I stumbled off the edge of the in-game platform and tumbled into an inky digital abyss. Shortly after that, my time was up.

Still from <em> The Lawnmower Man </em>

Dactyl Nightmare was not necessarily bad. It’s just that I was completely unprepared for … the realities of virtual reality.

Despite this, I leapt off the platform a little like Bart Simpson immediately after he’s been on Mount Splashmore’s most terrifying waterslide: I immediately wanted to do it again! Alas, I had to settle for buying the t-shirt, which featured an excited person yelling while wearing a VR headset. In enormous typeface, the text read, ‘IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND’. Quite.

Perhaps the various screenwriters and directors who have maintained a fascination with VR did not cough up their pocket money for three minutes in the Dactyl wastelands, because it has continued to provide a rich vein of material for the past three decades.

If VR retreated from the headlines once everyone had had their five minutes in a Virtuality exhibition, it remained firmly embedded in the collective unconscious. Brett Leonard’s double whammy of VR movie thrillers, The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Virtuosity (1995), now seem as clunky as those original VR arcade games. The former, in particular, is a perfect example of what many thought the frightening implications of a world gone mad on VR would be (to wit: sudden psychokinetic and pyrokinetic abilities brought on by glitches in the virtual realm. Sure, seems reasonable!)

Film posters
Posters promoting Kathryn Bigelow’s <em>Strange Days</em> and Brett Leonard’s <em>Virtuosity</em>, both released in 1995

Other VR directors envisaged their own futuristic nightmares. Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 masterpiece, Strange Days, depicts a Los Angeles on the brink of total chaos as the new millennium approaches. In this alternate 1999, ‘wire-trippers’ can ‘jack in’ by wearing a SQUID device that allows the user to see and feel experiences recorded directly from another person’s cerebral cortex. Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny is the black marketeer who deals these videos to users looking for a cheap thrill: footage of an 18-year-old girl having a shower, or of masked thugs breaking and entering.

Strange Days was ahead of its time, from its commentary on militarised police violence and racial inequality to its uncomfortably prescient vision of ‘hurtcore’ films.

The potential horrors of this VR-adjacent technology are only fully grasped when a mysterious criminal sexually assaults and murders a woman, recording the crime from his own SQUID and forcing her to experience her own brutalisation through his eyes. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time, ‘It’s revealing, how a scene like that seems so much more sad and distressing than the more graphic scenes of violence we see all the time in the movies: Bigelow is able to exploit the idea of what is happening; she forces her audience to deal with the screen reality, instead of allowing us to process it as routine “action”.’

Bigelow’s efforts to grapple with the possibilities of VR can seem a little dated in an era where VR is mostly viewed as harmless and spectacular recreation: a channel for carefree gaming, immersive interactives and short films that buoy the soul. But in all other regards, Strange Days remains extraordinarily current. In a way, this is a film ahead of its time, from its commentary on militarised police violence and racial inequality to its uncomfortably prescient vision of the ‘hurtcore’ films that dominate the dark web – even the hysteria that anticipated Y2K.

Crucially for consumer expectations, though, films about virtual reality implied that soon virtual reality would be so advanced we would be unable to distinguish it from the real world. This was far from the case. As one writer put it, rather ruefully, ‘By the time Nintendo released the [game console] Virtual Boy in 1995, consumers who paid nearly $200 for the 3D gaming system experienced not sensory immersion but a two-bit monochromatic LED display with images about the size of a YouTube video.’

Some years after its first release, I tried playing a Virtual Boy. I had to lie down on the floor to stop the headset falling off my face, and could only play for five minutes before developing a crushing headache. You could say it blew my mind.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.