Oculus and Our Troubles With (Virtual) Reality
Matthew Flisfeder , 15 Nov 17

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces the launch of Oculus Go virtual reality headset in October. (Handout)

Last month, Facebook-owned virtual reality company, Oculus, announced its new device, Oculus Go.

Go, the successor to Oculus Rift, is a cheaper standalone virtual reality (VR) headset and controller system set for release in 2018. The company boasts that the new system allows users to immerse themselves in over 1,000 games, social apps and 360˚ experiences, and step inside a personal portable theatre to watch movies, TV shows, sports and play games.

At a much lower cost than the previous iteration (US$199 compared to $599 for the Oculus Rift), Oculus Go is likely to become very popular.

Similarly, Microsoft partners, including Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo, announced their own headsets in the US$299 to $530 range, built to the technology giant’s specifications. And Google announced its $99 Daydream View — up in price from $79 for the previous smartphone-headset model.

These increasingly affordable devices are likely to excite many. But VR has long been a part of our popular culture. Throughout its history, new VR technologies have forced us to ask questions about its impact on culture and society.

In my research on media, popular culture and ideology, I’ve traced some of the ways that new media have changed how we see and experience reality.

Acer is one of several Microsoft partners launching consumer-priced mixed-reality headsets. (Handout)
VR in popular culture

Following the arrival of photography in the 1830s, the diorama, and then the panorama, were built structures that reproduced scenes made to look like the real world. Panoramas and dioramas are still used in shopping malls, window displays, museums and galleries to emulate the appearance of the traditional town square.

The arrival of cinema, and then television, truly gave us a new sense of VR. Movies and TV brought scenes, fantasies and fictions closer to us.

The way we tend to imagine new fully immersive VR technology has come from its depiction in popular literature, film and television.

William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer (1984), deals with a VR “cyberspace” environment called “the matrix.” The book is a precursor to the 1999 film, The Matrix. Other popular sci-fi and cyberpunk films in the 1990s also portray the arrival of immersive VR. These films include Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man (1992), Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor (1999), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995).

The Matrix film series helped to create a popular vision of virtual reality.
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) holodeck showed a much more optimistic portrayal of the possibilities of VR. But unlike its depiction on Star Trek, VR is used in other works to question the impact of the media and entertainment in creating alternate and possibly harmful realities. Perhaps that’s a reflection of our suspicions about the dangers of media manipulation.

Propaganda, “fake news” and “alternative facts”

Recently, the idea of alternate or alternative realities has moved from the fantasy worlds of the big screen to the small real-time screens of the news. The idea of “alternate realities” has been brought into the spotlight by political commentators observing the presidency of Donald Trump.

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