Exploring the future reality of immersive technologies
Monday, September 09, 2019
Science fiction is awash in speculative depictions of technologies in entertainment venues, film studios, science labs and anywhere computers exist.
The 1995 film "Strange Days" depicts a decaying police state using underground virtual reality technology. This technology passes hands as small discs containing a plethora of real human experiences — including murder. Later, the popular "Matrix" series moved the VR screen to "reality" itself, creating an illusive society with a real underground seeking to overthrow its mechanical mainframe.
While depictions of VR may vary, one thing is clear. VR is becoming more mainstream. This year’s Emmy nominations include the first VR film in the Documentary category. "Traveling While Black" is produced by Canada- and Los Angeles-based Felix and Paul Studios.
The immersive short film connects white supremacy’s continual regulation of bodies in the context of black travel and police brutality. Here, travel is a simultaneous metaphor for both the virtual reality technology that facilitates imaginative motion and the vulnerable reality of trying to move daily through racist space as people of color.
Produced from a VR headset perspective in both artistically rendered 360-degree surround shots and up-close interviews, this is just one example of immersive cinematic technologies, and Hollywood is noticing.
Another new entertainment technology is augmented reality (AR). How does “augmented” differ from "virtual?" If VR immerses the user in simulated environments, AR starts with the user’s real surrounding environment; it "adds digital elements to a live view."
Think "Pokemon Go."
Finally, mixed reality (MR) does as its name states. It mixes elements of VR and AR by providing tinted headgear that has sound and visual augmentation capacities via hologram objects placed in the user’s view. MR cuts through the totally immersive VR experience with a blended real and virtual experience.
Now that varying gradations of mediated reality are covered by these categories, and plenty of new products are being rolled out and tested in the entertainment sector (as well as education, medicine, science/research, architecture/design, etc.), what is futuristic in these strange days? Micro- and nanochipping.
In the science-fiction films "Existenz" and "Elysium," VR users are transported to alternate realities using the most awkward devices. "Elysium’s" headset-cum-armor is laughably clunky when compared to its sophisticated transporting capacities.
This is the same with "Existenz’s" own fleshy transporters — the bio-port, the umbicord, and the controller. Getting to the virtual can be represented as a more or less mechanical or organic process, but there is a clear dividing line between the user and the device either way.
Not so with the ominous world of the micro- or nanochip. Mandatory insertion — also known as "modification" — of the chip somewhere under the skin’s surface provides a seamless, unconspicuous, and even unconscious, usage.
Bodyhackers modify with chips, magnets, and electrodes to do anything from open garage doors to improve and track their workouts or sex lives. Companies are consensually chipping employees, but what happens if you do not consent?
Then there’s nonconsensual chipping — the stuff of paranoiac street rants and CIA conspiracy theories — as chips become more readily available online to be hacked as controlling devices (bio-hacking/bio-terrorism.)
The liberating shift away from clunky devices to streamlined chips comes at a price; it allows users to forget, but it also allows users to never know at all.
Already, needles and hackable chip implants are available. These could be used the same way date rape drugs are used. After a rough night of drinking, Jane Doe can wake up with strange auditory sounds or visual images more than a hangover, and go about her day, now fully surveilled, or even with body functions controlled.
The emerging technology is so powerful, it inspires flights of fancy. It is rumored that the ability to remotely chip-control another human body, including intervention into thoughts (neuromodification/extreme AI) and eyes turned into cameras streaming real-time imagery, already exists.
In a twisted maneuver that makes Stephen King’s “Running Man”(1987) look like child’s play, the data stolen from the nonconsensually chipped subject can be used to create mainstream entertainment, even large-scale social media coordinated "bio-doxxing" entertainment, that could seem harmless to many if they are ignorant of the products’ “source material:” a sovereign human body and mind.
The newest immersive/AI technologies might be transhuman, but they will also be transhumane if left unregulated. In the U.S. context, will instant gratification culture trump profit-prohibitive ethical regulations? And who exactly would be trusted to regulate this objectively?
Will complicity trump consent? Anti-trust outcomes for Big Tech will play a hand here in virtual entertainment.
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