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10 Retro Movies That Get Virtual Reality Extremely Wrong (and Occasionally Right)

10 Retro Movies That Get Virtual Reality Extremely Wrong (and Occasionally Right): TriStar Pictures

TriStar Pictures

Back in the early 1990s, it seemed as though The Future was just over the horizon.

In malls across America, virtual reality video games were on display, complete with goofy controllers, weird life preserver-like sensors, and heavy head-mounted displays that could pop a lumbar out of alignment. Clearly it would be impossible to avoid a dystopian, reality-bending cyperpunk world that was definitely just a few short years away, when everyone would be jacked in, suited up, de-rezzed and online. Reality was over: virtual reality was the next big thing.

Nobody seemed to believe in VR harder than Hollywood. Droves of sci-fi movies flooded theaters in the 1990s that showed off crazy VR tech that would bring your consciousness into the computer, because that’s where we were all totally going to live. Except it never quite happened. But about 20 years later, VR has circled back to being something that actually exists and isn’t just fodder for Keanu Reeves blockbusters. So how close did all those movies come to what real-life VR tech is like? They’re not too far off, actually! That is, until each one takes plausible VR tech and goes… a little bonkers.

But wait! you say. What is VR actually like, in real life, in 2016?

Hollywood’s version of virtual reality is an incredible place, a strange computer world where you lose yourself entirely and become a magic flying animal, or an unstoppable superhero, or a sad victim whose brain is melted by things like “neural feedback” and “information overload.”

Actual VR, on the other hand, is a 3D TV you wear on your face. The Oculus Rift, the best-known VR headset coming out this year, is a set of goggles that takes the place of your computer screen when you use it to play a game. The difference is, it’s packed full of tech that changes the image as you move your head, creating the ability to look around virtual “spaces” — it feels like you’re looking around a room that isn’t there. You can do the same thing in video games today, but you do it with the joysticks found on your typical Xbox or Playstation controller, or with your mouse on PC.

While being able to look around “inside” a game space is the current novel application of VR, the real interesting thing will be the addition of motion controls and other interface tools that translate your real body into the virtual world. Oculus is releasing its “Touch” controllers later this year, which are shaped a bit like pistol grips, and use button placement to mimic the feeling of reaching out and picking up objects—so you’ll be able to pick up an in-game gun or hit or catch an in-game ball and it’ll feel, kind of, like it really exists. Cameras packaged with the controllers keep track of the movement of your head and hands in 3D space, so you can actually reach out and “grab” things that only exist in VR. But it’s still just images on a screen, like other video games.

The HTC Vive, the Rift’s higher-end competitor, use more camera sensors to actually let you walk around VR spaces. You just need a large, clear room and a cord hooked up to the computer running the game that you’re not also going to trip over, and the Vive translates your movement in the real room to movement in the virtual space. Add the Vive’s own controllers and you can interact with the VR room much like you would if it were a real place.

And now, here’s what VR is like according to late-20th century cinema.


TRON (1982)

SUMMARY
Perhaps the original conception of virtual reality on film as we understand it, Tron is about Jeff Bridges getting sucked into a computer. There, he finds programs who are alive and who are forced to compete in games where the losers are destroyed, all at the behest of the evil overlord Master Control Program.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
In terms of what VR games actually look and feel like, Tron isn’t too far afield — it looks like a video game might. And in fact, its blacklight aesthetic and light cycle races have inspired quite a few games.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
The Grid might be what a VR game could look like, but that’s the end of the similarities. Games aren’t nearly as immersive as Tron and nobody gets killed by giant glowing staple removers. But Tron is only VR-adjacent, as it skips over the real tech in favor of its protagonist being laser-downloaded into a computer — which is probably still a few years off.


HACKERS (1995)

SUMMARY
A group of New York high schoolers who like to hack computers for the lulz get framed by an energy corporation’s cybersecurity officer, who’s using his l33t skillz to embezzle from the company. Luckily, the kids hack the planet and uncover the plot.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
One scene sees hacker villain the Plague playing some unknown VR game with a headset and controller that resembles a pistol grip — not unlike the Oculus Rift headset and Touch controls that’ll be available later this year. Protagonist Dade also uses a Google Glass-like wearable to navigate the virtual interface of the Gibson supercomputer.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
Not much, actually: Fisher Stevens as the Plague overacts a bit while playing an apparently raucous VR game, and flying around in a computer’s virtual insides seems like the worst possible way to actually use it, but that’s about it. Hackers is pretty tame when it comes to VR portrayal sins.


ARCADE (1993)

SUMMARY
A company gives away its new virtual reality game to some kids in order to drum up popularity, but its in-game villain is actually alive, created from the brain cells of a dying child, and sucks some of them into the game. Of course, the remaining kids have to go into VR and save their pals.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
Arcade’s head-mounted displays are roughly equivalent to what you’ll actually be able to buy this year.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
Apart from a set of wool gloves with wires running through them as interface devices, the movie culminates with its characters running around in an awful Nick Arcade virtual world. Even with those graphics, VR would be a lot cooler if it felt like a real place. What it actually feels like is sweaty plastic and foggy goggles.


THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992)

SUMMARY
Experiments with virtual reality allow a scientist to turn a learning-disabled gardener into a super-smart telekinetic killer who eventually downloads himself into the internet somehow.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
Considering there’s an omni-directional VR treadmill you can buy complete with special shoes, Pierce Brosnan’s spaceship controllers and giant gyroscopes don’t seem too far out there.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
Again, VR is just a screen on your face that changes the picture as you move your head. It can’t make your brain smarter by shooting images at your face. It can’t dessecate your corpse as you suck yourself into the internet. It can’t make someone go insane through sheer force of will. And I have no idea what’s going on with that weird dragonfly virtual sex scene.


VIRTUOSITY (1995)

SUMMARY
A virtual reality training program for law enforcement, created by combining the personalities of killers, downloads into a self-repairing robot, makes it look like Russell Crowe, and goes on a killing spree. Only Denzel Washington can stop it.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
While filmed in real reality, the virtual training program of Virtuosity actually resembles a video game, complete with oblivious characters who are bad at reacting to danger.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
People are somehow murdered by the VR program when they receive too much neural information or something. That can’t happen, short of getting your Oculus Rift soaked accidentally and it electrocuting you (and probably not even then). We’re still well short of realistic VR pain, at least as Denzel suffers it, as well.


THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR (1999)

SUMMARY
Programmers create a technology that beams your whole consciousness into a virtual simulation of 1930s Los Angeles, which is so real and complete that the people who populate it are basically alive. A murder mystery ensues.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
Um… virtual reality is really cool?

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
First, the simulation is so amazing that the simulated population living in it are actually people. Next, you somehow beam your brain down into the simulation, effectively taking over your virtual counterpart’s virtual body. Then, if you die in the simulation, your computerly counterpart can take over your body! It’s effectively nothing like our virtual reality, and it’s way better.


STRANGE DAYS (1995)

SUMMARY
A special device allows users to record their experiences. Other people can play back the recordings and experience them as if the user was there, with full sensory output, allowing anyone to buy memories like murder, death, thrill-seeking and sex — but the experiences have a narcotic effect.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
Current VR does support a lot of interesting visual experiences, like 360-degree video, recordings of extreme sports, and of course, porn. Tons of porn. Like man, that’s a lot of porn.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
VR is extremely limited in sensory output for users: it does a decent job with visuals and sound, but we’re a long way off from replicating any other senses. You can’t really feel VR yet, except with devices like gloves that use vibrations to simulate touching virtual objects. VR porn is going to stay strictly “look, don’t touch” for a while.


EXISTENZ (1999)

SUMMARY
Director David Cronenberg’s gross, fleshy take on virtual reality has players directly connecting living organisms to their spines, which transport them into realistic game worlds that are created on the fly by the personalities and subconscious attitudes of the players. The games are also indistinguishable from reality.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
The simulated world in eXistenZ actually feels a lot like a video game, with strange, semi-realistic locales, characters who require particular dialogue responses from players in order to advance the plot, and crazy shootouts. It’s a reasonable extension of current video games into an amazing new technology.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
Luckily, video game consoles are not made out of mutated amphibians and virtual reality is not so real that terrorists are trying to destroy it in order to preserve actual reality. Also we can be very thankful we don’t have “bioports” that require us to stick umbilical cords into our spines in order to unwind with a little Super Mario.


JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995)

SUMMARY
In the farflung future of 2021, information too sensitive for the internet is smuggled in the brains of couriers with special implants, but generally a lot of computing is done with virtual reality because maybe it’s more efficient to wave your hands in the air than type on a keyboard when you’re doing things like checking email or ordering airline tickets.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
Actually, much of the VR seems fairly realistic, at least for the most part. The headsets look like slicker versions of current tech, and devices like haptic gloves for controlling virtual stuff exist now—but they require cameras to gauge the user’s movement in 3D space. Virtual interfaces in the movie are confusing but plausible.

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
Unlike a lot of activities, virtual reality isn’t more fun if you do it with a dolphin.


THE MATRIX (1999)

SUMMARY
Finally, we have the realest and most virtual of virtual realities: the Matrix, a computer simulation that replicates human civilization so perfectly that it tricks billions of people into living out their lives inside a computer while robots use them as a power source.

WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
Um… maybe that part where all the guns fly into the white room with Neo and Trinity is kind of like a thing that might happen in real VR?

WHAT IT GETS WRONG
No plugging VR right into your brain with neural interfaces, no full-sensory immersion, no magic reality bending chosen people, no “your mind makes it real” dying in the Matrix kills you in real life. Nothing about The Matrix resembles modern VR. You don’t know kung fu. Sorry.


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