Narcissus and Necessity:

Why Are We Creating Virtual Realities

During the 1890s and early 1900s, a change took place in America and Europe that would have profound consequences for popular culture. We can mark its starting point as 1894 when Thomas Edison marketed a viewing device called a Kinetoscope, which allowed one person at a time to look at moving pictures on a loop of film. The next year, two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, gave the first commercial demonstration of moving pictures that were projected onto a large screen. With their invention, a new form of entertainment that came to be known as the movies was born.

As one would expect, the movies quickly became a source of public fascination. Suddenly, there was a technology that could capture the appearance of events in images. Those images could then be replayed so it seemed that they were being repeated exactly as they occurred, in a simulated three-dimensional space displayed on a screen. As audiences watched these moving “replicas” of reality, they felt as if they were seeing something close to magic, in which they could look in on other times and places, and escape the limits of everyday experience.

But the production of movies quickly went beyond the mere filming of events. As it evolved, the movies took a form they still have, today. First, film images were created of costumed actors performing on realistic stage-sets and in genuine settings. The images were then edited so the order in which the performances were filmed was rearranged into a fictional sequence of events. In essence, movie directors were doing what the designers of rain forest exhibits do: they were seamlessly weaving together all kinds of elements, some authentic, some fabricated, to create a composite, a sensory simulation that told a story. As audiences sat in a darkened room, watching these stories unfold on the screen, they experienced a sensory and psychological immersion in a simulated world.

To some in the industry, however, it was obvious that movies could be made more immersive. After all, if one could create a replica of reality by displaying images on a screen, then one could also make it seem that members of the audience were inside the world of images by surrounding them with a number of screens or bringing them right up to one screen. Or one could make it seem that the simulation had come into the theater, by giving the images a three-dimensional appearance or by placing props and sets around the audience that continued the movie’s theme.

The history of the entertainment industry in the last century is partly the story of efforts to turn the movies into such an immersive environment, from semi-circular screens that filled much of the audience’s field of vision to techniques for bringing the movie to the audience, such as AromaRama and the earthquake-imitating vibrations of Sensurround. As the last chapter describes, Disney was created out of this same desire to place audiences in a world of fantasy modeled after the movies.

Today, almost a century after people began dreaming of this possibility, we are beginning to accomplish it with a new generation of immersive theaters. Like rain forest exhibits and theme parks, immersive theaters are beginning to appear around America and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. The technology that makes them possible is computers, which have also made it possible to orchestrate many of the elements of artificial rain forests.

An example can be found at the Sony Imax Theater in Manhattan, where audiences wearing headsets with liquid crystal lenses stare at an 80-foot-high, 100-foot-wide, screen and see three-dimensional images that appear to float directly in front of them. While watching the underwater film, Into the Deep, it seems that they are swimming through an environment of kelp beds while fish navigate around them. The effect is like being inside a movie, which seems to occupy the same space as the theater.

Another example can be seen in Poitiers, France, where audiences in the world’s only Magic Carpet Theater look at a giant screen in front of them and another screen below a transparent floor. When they look down at the floor screen, they see images of land in the distance as it might look from an airplane, and experience the illusion they are flying. At one point, the image of a blimp comes toward them on the screen in front of the theater and then reappears on the floor screen so it seems to fly beneath them, evoking a startled reaction from members of the audience, whose senses tell them they have just avoided a mid-air collision.

But the most impressive immersive theater to date is Back to the Future…The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida. As audiences wait in line for the attraction, they are told that a character from the movie, Biff Tannen, has stolen a time machine, converted from a DeLorean, and traveled to the past where he will try to alter the natural unfolding of time. They are implored to go after him and save the world as they know it from being changed.

The audience is then loaded into 24 seating platforms disguised as time-traveling Deloreans. As a mist comes out from the dashboards, the DeLoreans are lifted into one of two 13-story-high domed theaters in which the ceilings are massive, wrap-around movie screens. With eight people in each DeLorean and twelve Deloreans suspended in each dome, audiences find themselves in an environment of larger-than-life images as they are taken for a ride through time, space and the story, in mock pursuit of the villain.

As the images unfold, audiences seem to fly through the world of the year 2115, careening through streets and alleys of the town Hill Valley and crashing through its clock tower, causing the gears and parts to fall away. Having achieved this symbolic destruction of time, they go on a journey through the ice age and the age of dinosaurs. Finally, while plunging on a lava flow to their deaths, they bump into Biff Tannen’s Delorean, causing him and themselves to time warp back to the present, where he will be unable to interfere with the natural unfolding of time.

In reality, the audience is inside another kind of themed environment in which realistic models of a dinosaur and various fantastic landscapes have been converted into oversized images, which seem to engulf the theater. As these images change size and position, the Delorean seating platforms move in tandem, horizontally, vertically and diagonally (while remaining in the same place), to create the illusion for the audience that it is traveling through the space displayed on the screens.

For the audience, the experience is like being inside a giant virtual reality headset. It finds itself in something approaching a pure simulation in which the sequence of events, the surrounding environment, the sense of forward movement and the participation in a story are tricks made possible by art and technology. The end result is another one of Umberto Eco’s “absolute fakes,” which are intended to be better than what they imitate. But what is faked, and improved on, is physical reality, in a way that makes it seem to audiences that they are transcending the limits of everyday life.

Drew Zelman, a spokesman for Ridefilm Corp., a subsidiary of Imax, which created the theaters described above, says Back to the Future “gives you the feeling you have left the world as you know it and entered somewhere completely different. It’s where people wish virtual reality was.” It offers “an altered state” that is safe and “drug free.”

Although Zelman obviously didn’t intend it this way, his claim that these experiences are a kind of altered state without drugs, is suggestive. Like drugs, the technology offers intense peaks that often leave audiences hungering for more — more better reality — that is more exciting, more interesting, brighter and more perfect than anything else afforded by life. And like drugs, they offer an essentially passive experience in which people sit back and experience the special effects.

All of the immersive theaters described here — along with virtual realities — place us in a lifelike representation of the three-dimensional world, which is modeled after our desires. As Freud might put it, we have constructed these technologies by using the powers of the ego — of rationality, science and technology — to build a universe of simulation governed by freedom from constraint, where the imagination is in control.

These technologies are a place where human narcissism meets metaphysics; where the inflated self, unable to reconcile itself to the world as it is, creates imitation worlds that are better suited to its desires. Marx said philosophers had only interpreted the world; the point was to change it. With immersive theaters, we take a shortcut and produce a new and improved facsimile, instead, where the adventures, the visual spectacles and the happy endings of Hollywood seem to happen to the audience.

But audiences aren’t only reacting with fascination to these new technologies. As we get better at using images to simulate physical reality, a new set of fears is emerging that these images could become so lifelike, they will interfere with our relationship to reality. We fear that image-based simulations will cut us off from the world or be confused for the world or that they will become so alluring, they will become sources of addiction in which people will choose to interact with images in place of their true surroundings.

These fears take their most extreme form in a set of “actualization fantasies” that can frequently be found in science fiction, in which image simulations are portrayed as becoming so realistic they become real, at times overthrowing reality. Less common are “deactualization fantasies” in which people are portrayed as falling down the rabbit hole, as it were, and becoming lost in worlds of simulation.

Actualization fantasies, in particular, are now a staple of science fiction. Thus, a movie character comes to life in The Last Action Hero and discovers that the rules are different in reality; a 3D image briefly achieves independence and runs amok in the hero’s apartment in the novel The Futurological Congress; a hologram of the fictional character, Moriarty, which was created inside a simulation room, becomes sentient in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and fights to figure out both where it is and how it can escape into the larger reality; and the image of the perfect woman created on a computer screen by two teenage males, comes to life, in the movie, Weird Science, leading the two to discover that they prefer real women to simulations of women modeled after their adolescent fantasies.

The archetypal work portraying the idea that simulation might become real is “The Veldt,” a short story written by Ray Bradbury some four and a half decades ago. It shows us a family named the Hadleys, living in the ultimate “Happy-life Home” of the future, “which clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them.” As in many such stories, the house also daydreams for its inhabitants, providing a synthetic Never-Never Land for the children, Peter and Wendy, in the form of a simulation room with wall-to-wall screens that are able to bring any thought to life in realistic images.

But the parents become concerned when they hear the children repeating the same story over and over that involves an African veldt, lions and strangely familiar screams. Fearing that the simulation room is exercising an unhealthy influence, the father shuts down not only the room but the entire house.

The children, desperate to save their world of comfort and fantasy, lock their parents in the simulation room. Suddenly, the realism and immersion that makes these technologies so alluring takes on the aspect of a trap as the parents find themselves facing an African veldt that looks a little too real.

As the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion, the supposedly simulated lions come toward the parents.

“Mr. Hadley looked at his wife and they turned and looked back at the beasts edging slowly forward, crouching, tails stiff.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hadley screamed.

“And suddenly they realized why those other screams had sounded familiar.”

In “The Veldt,” we see the ultimate fantasy that has become attached to simulation, in a high-tech and somewhat regressed version of the Oedipus complex — a simulation complex. Here, simulation becomes real and overthrows reality by eliminating demanding parents, so it can install a world of fantasy in which children are in control. The pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle and narcissism now governs in place of the world of necessity.

In “The Veldt,’ television exacts its final revenge against parents who nag their kids to shut off the TV, and Hollywood wins its final battle with the nonfiction world. An overindulgent technology in the form of the ultimate automated house, which looks a lot like a miniature Disney World, will now generate a new reality for its dependent and addicted audience.

Today, as immersive theaters, along with virtual realities, personal computers and the more traditional movies and television, increase their hold on the culture, “The Veldt” is beginning to look like a fictionalized description of what is actually happening, namely that images — and simulations in general — are generating much of our reality. We increasingly find ourselves not only in the three-dimensional space of the physical world (which is full of simulated objects), but surrounded by the simulated spaces displayed on screens, which are windows to all kinds of real and impossible worlds. As these simulated spaces begin to look a little too lifelike for comfort and promise to make every thought and desire seem to come true, they are unsettling our relationship with the larger world and offering us the allure of addiction and regression.

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* Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt,” in The Illustrated Man (Garden City: Doubleday 1951.)

Addendum: As we develop the ability to move between an accurate perception of our environment and lifelike imitation environments, there have been a number of predictable reactions. For example, there are increasing references in science fiction and popular culture to the idea that we may lose the ability, not merely to distinguish simulations from actual objects, but that we may not be certain whether the entire world we find ourselves in is real or a simulation. Thus, science fiction frequently portrays characters in a state of total confusion, not only lost in worlds of simulation, trying to get back out again, but also trying to figure out if their world is real.

In the movie, Total Recall, for example, the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger holds a gun on another character while that character tells him that while he thinks they are both standing there, he is really experiencing a hallucination, caused by the injection of simulated memories into his brain. Schwarzenegger stands, holding the gun, his world tottering, uncertain, until he sees a single bead of sweat on the character’s face, exposing the character’s nervousness, and assumes this must be reality, since, presumably, a hallucination wouldn’t be so worried about being plugged with holes.

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