The interaction between science and fiction in our day and age is for everybody to see and experience. The subject is a vast one and often kept separate from formal discussions its effects on the society and how it is affected by it. A science fiction topic which gained massive popularity in the decade of the 80’s and continued through to the 90’s was the subject of virtual reality. Virtual Reality simply refers to environments generated by a means of a computer program where physical presence is simulated. Such environments can be imaginary but very often bear close resemblance to the real world. In this discussion we shall be looking into the world of virtual reality and the science fiction literature and cinema that revolves around it. We shall be exploring the imagination and try to gauge the technical reality of virtual reality, also many a times referred to as cyberspace. Artificial Intelligence, cyborgs and cybrpunks are one of the most widely written about subjects in the world of virtual reality science fiction.
Science Fiction usually precedes the existing technologies and the society of the present day. It often sets the tot which was ne for the things to come in future. Stories and literature on virtual reality has also been no different either. The concept which was present in the 1980’s as a fantasy has had many applications in the society and technology today. However, the extent to which these applications have been made and the effects it has had on the society is the central idea behind this essay. We shall be looking into various examples and try to evaluate the positives and the negatives and reflect upon how much of the opinions and the ideas of the storytellers have come true. In short we shall look into how much of the virtual reality has become real and how good or bad that has been to the society in general.
The Evolution of Virtual Reality in Science Fiction
Virtual Reality, the term was first used by Antonin Artaudin his seminal work “The Theatre and Its Double” in 1938, however it was not used with respect to the Virtual Reality Technology (Davis). The origins of Virtual Reality in Science Fiction media and literature can be associated with the cyberpunk science fiction genre. Cyberpunk is a postmodern fiction genre which is typically set in near future and paint the picture of a post industrial dystopian world where technology is used in ways never intended to be used. The word Cyberpunk was coined by Bruce Bethke in his 1983 short story titled Cyberpunk (Bethke, 1). William Gibson is often regarded as the pioneer in cyberpunk science fiction genre and is well renowned for his Sprawl trilogy novels which brought the cyberpunk genre into the mainstream of science fiction writings. It was in his three novels that Gibson popularized many ideas like the existence of brain-computer interface which was used to communicate with a computer by a mere thought. In his book Neuromancer in 1984, Gibson also introduces a global computer network, which became the internet and the cyberspace, which is the precursor to the virtual reality technology. Although research in brain-computer interface, the Internet and concepts of virtual reality had existed earlier, it was with the success of Gibson’s work that the ideas became popular. Most cyberpunk literature or media have the cyberspace as the hub of all the action and thus blurring the borders of the real and the virtual.
Artificial Intelligence is another technology that was seamlessly integrated into the Virtual Reality Science Fiction genre. Here the literature and the media talked of artificial beings with intelligence and emotions. Movies like The Terminator talk of cyborg whose appearance is like a human, but is essentially an emotionless robot and limited intelligence sans any emotions.
Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligence and cyberpunks, all helped the development of virtual reality in its current form as a computer program presenting a pseudo-real world. The Virtual reality as the computer program aided utopia (or dystopia) began with the fast development of internet and parallel research during the period. It was with the non-fiction work of Howard Rheingold in 1991 titled Virtual Reality that demystified the subject and making it more accessible to the less technical enthusiast (Rheingold). The earliest of works painting a virtual world can be the Stanislaw Lem’s short story in 1960 titled "IJON TICHY'S MEMORIES" (Lem). The instances of virtual reality in television can be traced back to 1976 in the Doctor Who serial “The Deadly Assassin” which had a dream like computer generated reality called the matrix. The hugely popular TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation too featured a virtual reality facility called the Holodeck that facilitated the recreation of anything that the user wished to experience.
It will not be wrong to say that the modern day impressions of virtual reality has been largely shaped by a few path-breaking science fiction movies and the world of internet and gaming. In movies, notable mentions go to TRON (1982), which imagines a whole world inside a computer, into which the protagonist gets trapped. Lawnmower Man in the 1991 has also been regarded as one of the first movies to explore the subject in its most identifiable form. Perhaps the most iconic of the Virtual reality fiction is the movie The Matrix. The movie depicts a dystopian near-future where the cyborg and the machines harvest the humans for their biological energy. All the subgenres of the virtual reality science fiction are explored and put together beautifully. A point to be noted is that here too the theme is that of humans being trapped in the virtual world with the protagonist fighting his way out for freedom.
The evolution of virtual reality science fiction is inherently incomplete without the discussion of video games. This is the media which has, in recent years, most exploited the genre with many role playing games that enable a player to be part of an alternate reality universe and go about interacting/destroying/building the world to his or her whims and fancies. Among the plethora of game titles, the most intriguing is the game called second life. The game allows the player to assume an avatar and be whosoever he/she wants to be in a world that remarkably resembles the real world. Second Life literally allows an individual to be somebody that he/she wants to be in their fantasies.
Technology in Virtual Reality turning into Reality
Science fiction of its time is often regarded as a mirror to look into future. 20,000 leagues under the sea talked of underwater vessels which later became submarines. Wireless communication, aviation and space travel all existed as fantasies before turning into reality.
The same can be said about Virtual reality too. Artificial Intelligence has been implemented on robots and humanoids like Asimo have been built. The imaginary world called the cyberspace which was a global network of computers is indeed a reality today in the form of the internet. It is a place where people are meeting more frequently in form of the virtual self or avatars and through social networking, and the physical meet ups are far less frequent.
Some people can argue that the virtual reality which is largely depicted as evil and something that has mutilated the humanity are misplaced and unreal. However to answer this question, one needs to study the effects of virtual reality has had on the society. The effects of technology on science fiction and science fiction on technology cannot be accurately evaluated without the study of society and culture.
The Nature and Characteristics of Virtual Reality in Science Fiction and its Reality
Since the beginning of science fiction cyberpunk genre, which in many ways is a precursor to the virtual reality fiction literature, the setting has been mostly that of a near future dystopian society. Be it Gibson’s trilogy or the Blade Runner movie, it features the protagonist logging horns with the government and the authority and essentially fighting for freedom, either of the self or of the community. If it is to be believed that the literature mirrors the state of society, or in the case of fiction, many a times precedes it, it is intriguing to see why science fiction is obsessed with technology taking over the mankind and society. The reasons for such a situation I believe are in society’s overdependence on technology. The society and its members cannot do without the gadgets that surround us. This gives air to the skeptics’ view that maybe in future when such technologies might fail or go beyond our control, the mankind would fall.
It is well understood that the literature today reflects the state of society and is equally affected it. Lawrence Person defines a cyberpunk as:
"Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body." (Person, 1)
In my opinion the rampant spread of the virtual reality in the form of the internet, video game and other technologies has turned most individuals into loners and alienated from the real world. People now use games like Second Life to maintain alternate identities and use the virtual world to escape from reality. To me this has been one of the biggest and most wide spread effects of virtual reality.
Virtual reality also often imagines a utopia. Many postmodern thinkers like Porush believe that in spite of showcasing a largely dystopian world, the cyberspace or the world of virtual reality is a utopia and a place that is desired by all. It is because that places enables using the deterministic platform for unpredictable ends. It is a place for heroic adventure, unconscious desires and imagination (Porush, “Cyberspace Utopoids as Postmodern Cargo Cult”).
The Future of Virtual Reality
Many believe that the virtual reality is fast becoming old and is being replaced by the new buzzword: Augmented Reality (Schonfield, “Augmented Reality Vs. Virtual Reality: Which One Is More Real?”). I personally believe that virtual reality has transformed and evolved in a way that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the virtual and the real. Thus Augmented Reality also in many ways has its roots to the virtual reality science fiction literature or media. It is now pointless to label things as real or virtual as through the technological developments fueled by science fiction, the virtual has indeed become real in our society.
Bethke, Bruce. The Cyberpunk Project. Amazing Science Fiction Stories. November 1983. Print.
Davis, Erik. Techgnosis: myth, magic and mysticism in the information age, 1998. Print.
Lem, Stanislaw. IJON TICHY'S MEMORIES. 1960. Print.
Person, Lawrence. Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto. Nova Express , 1998.
Porush, David. “Cyberspace Utopoids as Postmodern Cargo Cult” Coalition of Networked Information. American Library Association, 1992. Web. 12 Aug 2012.
Rheingold, Howard. Virtual Reality. 1991. Print.
Schoenfield, Erick. “Augmented Reality Vs. Virtual Reality: Which One Is More Real?” TechCrunch. AOL Inc. 2012. Web. 12 Aug 2012.