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Emerging technologies in virtual and artificial reality blur the line between science and fiction
The concept of virtual or simulated reality has a rich history. In fact, depending on how you define your terms, the idea of reality as being essentially unreal goes back pretty far -- all the world's a stage, and so forth. Technology-driven virtual realities have become of fixture of many science-fiction movies, where the visual nature of the medium is ideal for suggesting the immersive world of VR.
Virtual realities need not be strictly computer simulations -- phantom digital worlds existing only in cyberspace. Simulated realities could employ science from a dozen different disciplines -- neurology, optics, nanotechnology, material sciences. We look at some of the weirdest VR worlds in science-fiction films and the real-world technology currently under development that is moving us toward them.
The Matrix: Brain-computer interface technology
Few films reflect the zeitgeist of their time better than "The Matrix," the 1999 sci-fi freakout that still echoes with man vs. machine paranoia and end-of-the-millennium dread. In the universe of the film, reality as perceived by humans is actually a massively complex virtual reality program. Encased in pods, humans are wired into the immersive world of "The Matrix" via a very unsettling bio-port at the base of skull.
We're not quite at this stage yet (so far as we know), but brain-computer interface technology is a very real and busy field of study in biomedical engineering. Neuroprosthetics, or brain implants, can indeed be used to replace sensory organs, directly generating visual and auditory signals in the mind.
Ender's Game: Military VR combat training
Based on the popular series of novels by Orson Scott Card, the 2013 film "Ender's Game" incorporates several virtual reality scenarios. The story concerns a future military academy where young recruits play advanced virtual war games to prepare for an imminent conflict with an alien species. The line between what's real and what's simulated gets blurry, triggering a cascade of military and moral quandaries.
In reality, military forces around the planet regularly use VR technology for combat training, from basic driving simulators to fully immersive systems incorporating head-mounted displays and force-feedback suits. In fact, according to a recent report in the Air Force Times, virtual reality training is likely to largely replace live training for the latest generation of fighter jets.
Strange Days: Optogenetic memory manipulation
An underrated cyberpunk thriller, director Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 film "Strange Days" combines near-future sci-fi speculation with old-fashioned film noir sleaziness. It's a lot of fun. The story revolves around the use of "squids" -- a kind of VR recording device that lets users experience others' memories and physical sensations "straight from the cerebral cortex." Black marketeer Ralph Fiennes makes his money by selling good memories to bad people. Or vice versa. Depends.
The technology may be closer than you think. Scientists at MIT recently published a study in which they were able to switch "good" and "bad" memories in the brains of laboratory mice. Using a process called optogenetics, scientists can actually see and manipulate specific memories as they're formed in the amygdala and hippocampus.
Michael Crichton's 1973 sci-fi movie "Westworld" takes another approach to the idea of a technologically simulated reality. Keying off the essential creepiness of amusement parks, "Westworld" depicts a futuristic theme park where visitors interact with networked, lifelike androids in the guise of medieval knights or Old West gunslingers. Predictably, things go awry.
The idea of lifelike androids populating a simulated world is a recurring theme is science fiction. For realistic androids in the real world, your best bet is the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan. The lab is dedicated to producing the world's most lifelike robots, including the recently unveiled Kodomoroid and Otanaroid models.
Star Trek: Holodeck
For dedicated fans of the late, great TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation," one of the coolest aspects of life aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise is the simulated reality facility known as the holodeck. More than just an audiovisual virtual reality chamber, the holodeck is capable of generating matter dynamically so that users can interact with physical objects and forces.
We're still a long way from holodeck technology, but there are some intriguing developments in this area. For instance, consider the Transform Table -- a piece of shapeshifting furniture, made from 1,000 independently mobile "pins," that can alter its form in response to human gesture and interaction. It's part of a larger initiative to create material that can morph on command.
The Veldt: Head-mounted VR displays in education
Here's one for old-school sci-fi fans: Ray Bradbury's short story "The Veldt," originally published in 1950 as "The World the Children Made," envisions a future VR room that serves as a high-tech nanny for two spoiled, wealthy children. The story was included in the 1969 film adaptation of "The Illustrated Man." Remarkably prescient, the story’s one of the earliest instances of sci-fi VR. It also warns of the bloodier dangers of limiting your kids' screen time.
Virtual reality for kids is a bit gentler in the real world; in fact the use of VR in education is heating up. The consumer model of the much-anticipated Oculus Rift head-mounted display is due next year, and several developers are working on educational applications for the device.
Source Code: Telekinesis technology
Another overlooked gem, the 2011 sci-fi film "Source Code" puts an interesting twist on virtual reality. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. Army pilot who finds himself in a series of virtual realities, which appear to represent leaps in time, identity, even quantum physics. Without giving away too much, the story involves use of neural sensors that allow our hero to manipulate the outside world with his mind.
That's technically telekinesis, and it's impossible, right? Maybe not. An open-source device for Google Glass called Mind RDR ("mind reader") uses an EEG headset monitor to let you control Google Glass with the power of thought. Concentrate hard enough, and the dermal patch triggers the headset camera to take a photo of whatever you're looking at. Really.
The Cabin in the Woods: Artificial environments
A delirious mashup of horror, sci-fi, and satire, "The Cabin in the Woods" provided the weirdest artificial reality of 2012. When a group of college kids head out for a rural weekend adventure, they find that the titular cabin (and the woods) are controlled by malevolent offsite technicians. Sort of like Xbox tech support.
Researchers at the University of Michigan are working on a similar, but less deadly, artificial environment -- an entire city center actually. The Mobility Transformation Facility will eventually take up 30 acres on the university's north campus and is designed for the testing of the future wave of driverless cars. The simulated city center will have stoplights, intersections, a four-lane highway, and even mechanical cyclists and pedestrians.
Dark City: Force fields
Director Alex Proyas' visionary 1998 film "Dark City" features one of the most visually inventive artificial realities in the history of sci-fi movies. (Warning: spoiler alert ahead.) Rufus Sewell plays an amnesiac named John Murdoch who discovers, the hard way, that the city he lives in is actually a giant space habitat, drifting through the void and maintained by a race of alien weirdos known as the Strangers.
The film is more style than technical specifics, but it appears that the habitat is maintained with force fields. Could we construct such an artificial reality in space? Physicists say force fields may be possible, by way of superheated plasma and strong magnetic fields, but they wouldn't be transparent, and they'd require ginormous amounts of energy.
Other virtual realities
You could easily program a week-long film festival with sci-fi movies about virtual reality. There's "Tron," of course. The 1982 version still holds up, and the 2010 remake isn't bad if you turn off the picture entirely and just listen to the great soundtrack by Daft Punk.
Some other VR movies on the short list: "Brainstorm," "Total Recall," "The Lawnmower Man," "Virtuosity," "The Thirteenth Floor," "Vanilla Sky," "The Cell" and the severely trippy "eXistenZ." You could make the case for "Jurassic Park" and "Inception," too. If you want to keep up on real-world virtual reality news, bookmark the busy news site Road to VR.