Virtual Reality and Modern Cyberpunk Pt.1

The questions still intrigue us: Is the world we currently live in artificial? Could we ever find out if we were living in a simulated reality? Can a simulated reality offer us more to enjoy than the real world? Are there inherent dangers to the prospects of virtual reality? And the most important question in regards to cyberpunk: Where does VR stand in relation to the future of modern cyberpunk? Before we get into the topic, let’s quickly talk about cyberpunk as a mode of fiction and how it operates within that framework.

VR 1

Cyberpunk is a brand of speculative fiction that has brought a good many future insights our way and promises to continue doing so. The very nature of cyberpunk, if it is to grow and expand, is to welcome into our awareness new visions of future tech and our ever-changing relationship to it. Body augmentation, implanted chips, virtual reality, and holograms, among others, are vital to the sphere of cyberpunk in complex ways, and as our modern world evolves, cyberpunk (along with other brands of sci-if) will need to take these tools and evolve with it, showing us just how far these technological horizons can be pushed. We are fans of a powerful genre that has the potential to morph paradigms, the very fabric of our cultural perceptions, but it demands that we both ask and attempt to answer the multi-faceted questions it offers us.

VR 2

From our early movie-watching days, we can recall (excuse the pun) the ‘lost in fabricated memories’ premise of Total Recall (1990 & 2012), the ‘Oh no, reality isn’t real!’ of The Matrix (1999), and the ‘virtual reality invades actual reality’ of The Lawnmower Man (1992). If we delve into prominent literature, we arrive at the complex inner-workings of the “Sprawl Trilogy” by William Gibson and his extensive use of a virtual reality called “the matrix” in which humans and AI interact. These and quite a few other works of fiction form the foundation of what we know as cyberpunk, and offered visions that re-shaped our notions about what role VR might play in the future of humankind. It is from these early expeditions into fiction that the fan fiction, the cosplay, the modern remakes and reboots and sequels and prequels come, and it’s from these early works that VR is brought to light in a way that the public grasp and begin to form strong opinions about.

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Sadly, Hollywood’s interest in virtual reality has waned (despite the Tron revival) and instead of movies that explore the virtual frontiers, we are getting an overload of “epic” science fiction full of explosions and bereft of intellect. It’s entertainment for the masses without any predeterminations to provoke thought or suggest realistic and (more or less) possible futures, because what are they all lacking? Virtual reality!

We are all very aware at a deep level that once virtual reality becomes affordable and commonplace, it’s going to be all anyone will ever want to do. The immediate offerings are virtual shopping, virtual workplace meetings, virtual hangouts, and the like. But with no one creatively pushing those boundaries, the real-world results of VR are going to remain lackluster and will most likely resemble three-dimensional chat rooms and alternate realities where you can watch funny cats falling into bathtubs. Sign me up!

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So we return to our topic at hand. Where does virtual reality fit into modern cyberpunk, now that technologies like the Oculus Rift are poised to become household concepts? Will we endlessly retread the same tired ideas we’ve come to expect from cyberpunk fiction (“Oh no, reality isn’t real!”) or will we find it in ourselves to push like maniacs at the boundaries of our imagination in order to lay the groundwork for future writers and artists and programmers to create something truly unique and immersive?

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Will we wait silently for the 5th Total Recall remake, the awful watered-down Hollywood Neuromancer that’s bound to happen eventually, or the day when Shia Labeouf takes the baton from Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 14? Or will we go boldly into unknown realms and discover the real hidden potential of virtual reality and how we as humans fit into the equation? In part 2, we’ll talk answers to all these question and see if we can’t come up with a few new directions cyberpunk can branch into to stay relevant and help push those virtual reality boundaries!

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