Virtual reality

Interactive media and virtual reality in science fiction

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Virtual reality

Last year, I took an Interactive Media class, taught by one of the best professors I’ve ever known: Dr. Samuel Ebersole. After writing about virtual reality and diving into another readthrough of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I started thinking again about some of the topics we discussed in class. One of the more interesting topics that caught my attention was the use of interactive media in science fiction stories.

For instance, the OASIS from Ready Player One may well be the pinnacle of what we can achieve with interactive media. While, RP1 was not discussed in class, other novels like Fahrenheit 451 and Neuromancer were.

The wall-size, immersive TVs in Fahrenheit 451 served as interactive media that entertained the population as war erupted around them. While Bradbury was a visionary — and I loved the book — I would like to focus on two other topics we discussed during the class: Neuromancer and Star Trek’s holodeck.

First, William Gibson — one of my favorite authors and the pioneer of Cyberpunk — was also mentioned in the class, regarding The Matrix. Gibson himself did not actually write the Matrix movie; the Wachowski brothers did, with heavy influence from Gibson’s book, Neuromancer, and some of the existing Cyberpunk at the time.

Within the context of Neuromancer, however, “The Matrix” is the virtual reality environment in which net runners operate. It has thematically similar elements to the movie’s Matrix, but is definitely a different story. I won’t spoil the book for you, but will heartily recommend it. It’s a genuine thrill ride set against the backdrop of VR.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash takes another approach with virtual reality where his protagonist is a pizza delivery man who exists as a hero in an online, virtual world. It’s an amazing, well-written story that explores VR in detail. I love Stephenson’s work and recommend starting here.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, is another great book that covers the subject in detail. It’s required reading for new Oculus Rift employees and is a blast-from-the-past-in-the-future kind of story. It’s also a hell of a ride and tremendous fun. I highly recommend it, as you will undoubtedly be aware if you’ve ready any of my recent articles.

The impact of Ready Player One and the future of virtual reality

Virtual reality and the music industry

“Computer, begin program …”

Finally, let’s discuss Gene Roddenberry’s holodeck. The device is first seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and would go on to make appearances in both spinoff series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) and Star Trek: Voyager (VOY). The holodeck made its appearance in the pilot episode of TNG, but it served primarily to introduce conflict into a utopian, conflict-free society.

As you can imagine, this led to now-typical holodeck tropes: something goes wrong with the program, plunging the ship into chaos; a holodeck program gains sentience and attempts to destroy the crew; the holodeck becomes “real” somehow. The list goes on.

Granted, Moriarity was a decent holodeck villain and Data sure loved those wacky Sherlock Holmes stories, but that’s really all TNG did with the holodeck. Great potential, greatly squandered. DS9 used the holodeck (or “holosuites”) a bit more, especially toward the latter seasons with the Vic Fontaine program. Vic Fontaine was a sentient hologram, designed to know he was a hologram. Fascinating stuff.

James Darren as Vic Fontaine, woke hologram (Paramount)
James Darren as Vic Fontaine, woke hologram (Paramount)

Of course, that leads us to a main character on VOY, The Doctor, the ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram. At first confined to sick bay, he eventually obtains advanced technology which allows him to move about the ship freely and even go on away missions. The show made use of this as various plot points and — I must admit — the Doctor was one of my favorite VOY characters and quickly became one of the few reasons I watched the show through to its end.

"Please state the nature of the medical emergency."
“Please state the nature of the medical emergency.” (Paramount)

The Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR are making strides in virtual reality. What is the holodeck, other than advanced VR? Then there’s Microsoft’s amazing HoloLens Technology, currently in development. AR and VR are being used in conjunction with the music industry (see this article), the video game industry (Nintendo 3DS) and even in advertising movies (Moana had a VR ad campaign at select theaters).

The holodeck seems both terrifying and intriguing. Since so many things from Trek seem to be invented – the tablet is basically a PADD, for instance – I am eager to see what happens with something like the holodeck. I can imagine the holodeck being a sort of virtual reality, but perhaps augmented reality may play a role. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see what develops.

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About David Buck

David BuckDavid Buck is an author, musician and media professional based in Colorado. He likes to write about interesting music, video games and science fiction.