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The Chilling Film Concept of Virtual Reality

The adventure was over. Soon, as always happened, they would be home, and all the wonder, the terror, and the excitement would be behind them. They were tired and content.

--From The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

In Clarke's 1953 novel, a vast city drifts in a long sleep. Its inhabitants are captives under the city’s vast dome. Outside is a land largely unknown. But the citizens are not bored, because they can have dreams so real that they are not dreams at all, but virtually real.

Virtual reality. Nearly 40 years after Clarke's novel, these are the buzzwords for a new branch of computer science. In VR theory, a human being would be hooked up to computer-generated sensations. His eyes would see what the computer dictated. His ears would hear, his nose would smell, his skin would feel what was programmed by the computer. It would seem he was actually having the experience provided by the software.

Virtual reality is still more theory than practice, but for a movie critic, it holds out fascinating possibilities. What is a movie, after all, but a crude form of VR, in which we see and hear what the filmmaker desires? Anyone who has ever laughed or cried at the movies has experienced a form of VR.

Already, some movies are more realistic than that. There's IMAX, the high-tech movie system that uses surround speakers and a five-story-high screen to put us inside experiences like a Rolling Stones concert. There's that Star Wars ride at Disney World, where we're strapped into seats that lurch forward and pitch violently, while the large-screen movie tries to convince us we're in a spaceship. What about 3-D? And such crude 1950s experiments as Smell-o-Vision (odors wafted into the theater) and Shock-a-Rama (electric shocks in some of the seats)?

What would happen if, someday, going to the movies was like this:

You walk up to the Compu-Matic Theater and buy your ticket to the latest "Vrovie." Fifty bucks, but what the hell. Inside, there's no popcorn counter. Instead, you sign an affidavit saying you have taken no solid nourishment since midnight. They don't want you getting nauseated and choking on your vomit.

You go into an examination room, where nurse/ushers take your pulse and a brief medical history. Then into the neural network engineering room, where electrodes are strapped to your scalp. Earphones are provided. A helmet slips over your head, and at first, you see pitch blackness. Then the Vrovie starts, and Julia Roberts or Alec Baldwin is smiling at you (depending on which show you're attending).

You seem to be a character in their lives. You feel your feet walking, your hands swinging. Tiny electrical impulses stimulate the sensual receptor centers of your brain, so that you smell freshly cut lawns on the summer breeze. You hear the wind in the trees. You get into a car. Julia/Alec is driving. You're slammed back against the seat by the sudden acceleration. You realize someone is chasing you. A slug slams into the window beside you, and glass flies against your cheek. You feel the cut. Blood runs down onto your hands, but Julia/Alec shouts, "It's only a flesh wound. Hang on!" And then the rocket car lifts off and zooms into the stratosphere, where your driver parks it in orbit, turns to you, smiles seductively, and says, "The moon really looks pretty from here. . . . "

These kinds of escapist experiences will be available, I understand, within a generation. Crude forms of them are available now. Virtual reality is an academic specialty, but movies like "Tron" and "The Lawnmower Man" are introducing the concept to mass audiences.

The questions about VR fall into two categories: technical and ethical. The technical questions will take care of themselves; this technology will be perfected. But the ethical questions are extremely interesting. They include:

To what degree is it permissible to completely take over another person's consciousness? Is there a limit to how deeply one person should manipulate another's experience? Is it right for us to have VR experiences before we have actual experiences to base them on? What would it mean if we had our first sexual experience in VR before we had it in real life?

If we really and truly felt we were dying in VR, how would that affect our subsequent life, after we "awakened"? If we were completely convinced of impending death, could a real "near death" experience be triggered? Would all our loved ones beckon us to enter that famous tunnel of light, only to discover it was a false alarm?

And what would it be like for the stars? There'd be millions of people walking around who, thanks to Vrovies, shared the literal impression of having made love with them, killed them, been killed by them, spent time with them? If a fan said, "I loved you in your last Vrovie," what would the correct answer be?

Movie critics, faced with Vrovies, would become even greater bores than we already are. We wouldn't be reviewing movies, we'd be telling you about our last trip. A review might open like this:

Julia Roberts smiled invitingly as her arm snaked toward me across the seat of the rocket car.The new moon twinkled above us. I felt a stirring in my libido, as . . .

How would critics - or anyone - criticize such an experience? Reality is above criticism, isn't it? Would we leave a Vrovie feeling, not that the experience was bad, but that it shouldn't have happened to us? If Clint Eastwood had shot us, would we still be angry at him? If we'd had sex with the star of the Vrovie, how would our spouses feel? Would that count as cheating? And what would it be like, as a Vrovie star, to perform in two takes of every scene - the first one forthe camera, the second one for the electrodes recording the feel of the your body?

These are questions I'll have to leave to future generations. But I can think of some Vrovies I'd like to experience. I'm afraid of heights, so I'd like to climb a mountain in a Vrovie. I'd like to be inside "The Third Man." I'd like to be Groucho Marx. And when Anita Ekberg goes wading in that ancient fountain in the Roman dawn, to hell with Marcello Mastroianni, that's me, splashing right in there after her.

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