The next few years will see virtual reality as a major entertainment and education medium. But exactly what sort of things can we expect from a computerized simulation that can take you anywhere? Many answers can be found in today's media. Let's look at how the entertainment industry has portrayed virtual reality, past and present.
One of the earliest examples of a virtual reality cyberscape was the 1982 film Tron which looked at video games from the other side of the screen, through the eyes of the programs. Computers were employed to create the world inside the computer as well as the various vehicles employed within. Later films such as The Last Starfighter took computer generated worlds a step further by incorporating more complex graphic settings and vehicle designs in the movie's fantastic battle sequences. These films pointed the way to the future of video games... Anyone who has played Namco's coin-op Starblade can easily draw parallels to The Last Starfighter. The game's top notch 3-D graphics and stunning sense of flying through space conveyed by the game show the potential for convincing simulations. Chicago's Battletech center also uses VR technology by placing 2 teams of players into simulated cockpits and sending them out on a computer generated battleground in walking combat mechs (this simulation is widely recognized as the best commercial use of VR technology).
Similar to The Last Starfighter comes Babylon 5 . Slated for a February 1993 release, this sci-fi TV series will employ computer generated backgrounds and vehicles rendered so completely that the shows producers have stated that viewers won't be able to distinguish them from the real thing (this statement being only relative since not many people can claim to have seen a real alien star cruiser).
"True" virtual reality is depicted on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The holodecks, which use matter/energy conversion to create alternate realities around the participant show the most comprehensive view of where VR technology may head in the future.
However, computers haven't been the only tools used to create VR worlds in popular fiction. One possibility may be neural stimulation... No video screens, no joysticks, just direct stimulation of the brain's sensory nodes via electrodes or data chip implants or whatever. This decidedly "Cyberpunk" view of VR entertainment would allow other world's to unfold within the players imagination with full interaction with events and individuals placed there. These "braingames" would be the ultimate simulation... Imagine a VR version of Street Fighter II, where you could put on Guile's camos (or for the more self confident and adventurous type, Chun Li's tights)! Taking a foot in the face would certainly look different lying face up on the floor.
The future of virtual reality is probably not as mysterious as it would've been if sci-fi hadn't given us a taste of it in movies and TV. Video game technology changes dramatically from year to year, and eventually, VR technology may be replacing Nintendo units in the home. Soon after, VR television and film would probably become a reality as well, with the viewer seeing the action through the main character's eyes! There's a lot to look forward to in the 21st century as far as entertainment is concerned, and virtual reality will certainly be the main reason.
Originally appeared Vol 1, Iss 4 (10-11/92)