How Hollywood Has Predicted VR in Movies

From zero gravity chambers to organic gaming consoles, Hollywood has been dreaming up some of the biggest and best ways to implement virtual reality for decades.  They’ve envisioned it as the latest method of psychoanalysis, human enhancement, law enforcement training and so much more.  Traditionally based off of technological developments happening in the real world, some of the first movies with VR technology started coming out in the early 80’s when advancements in computer technology allowed research to begin on more affordable VR.  With the 90’s came a large influx of VR movies on the coattails of the tech appearing in arcades across the globe.  Since the Oculus Kickstarter in 2012, VR has seen a revival on the big screen as it becomes a more affordable and accessible consumer device.

Looking at the direction technology is going today, we decided to look at how some of the most well known and then some not so well known VR and AR movies have portrayed the technology in their own unique way.

To qualify the list, these movies had to be using technology with the goal of inducing presence, whether that be in a game world, dreamscape, or recording of reality.  This technology could be in the form of a head mounted display, motion tracking, haptic systems in gloves or suits, locomotion, consoles or image capture.

TRON (1982)


Being one of the earliest films to explore the combination of human computer interaction, TRON is well known for its, at the time, exceptional graphics.  Knowing they stole video game designs from him, arcade bar owner Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) keeps trying to hack into his former employer’s system to prove what they stole from him.  Foiled time and again, he sneaks into their office and inadvertently becomes immersed in cyberspace.

  • Full immersion:  Digitized by a laser, Kevin Flynn is downloaded into cyberspace with full presence due to his absence from the real world.

Brainstorm (1983)


With the goal of recording sensory information from the brain and relaying it to anyone watching the tape, Michael Brace (Christopher Walken), Karen Brace (Natalie Wood), and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) are thrust into a race to transform years of R&D into a consumer model.  With pressure from investors and the military, the tech continues to grow while the sensory and emotional implications of the technology are still being discovered.

  • Head mounted display (start of film):  Prototype model that appears to be a maskless football helmet with an array of sensors and circuitry strewn around the head.  Included in the entire system is another helmet that acts as the receiving model.  The prototypes proves to finally work when Walken’s character is able to taste the steak with peanut butter, hot fudge, nuts, marshmallow sauce with a cherry on top that the transmitting helmet wearer is eating.
  • Head mounted display (end of film): With function accounted for and form the primary focus, the consumer model looks like a cerebral crown similar to the Epoc Emotiv.  It is capable of gathering all of the sensory information of the wearer, recording to a tape, and then relaying to another wearer at a separate time; transferring skills, memories, and senses.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)


Researching methods to increase intelligence, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) begins experimenting on chimpanzees using a combination of drugs and VR.  Seeing success, he advances to testing his methods on an intellectually disabled landscaper, Jobe (Jeff Fahey).  Jobe is run through a variety of advanced VR simulations and begins to see astounding results.

  • Head mounted display: Resembling the consumer headsets of today, life-like field of view and motion is relayed.
  • Bodysuit: Skin tight body suits are worn to both provide tracking of the arms and legs as well as relay touch sensations via haptic technology.
  • Locomotion:  Taking advantage of a human sized gyroscope called an aerotrim, Jobe and Dr. Angela are able to move about and explore the virtual space.

Arcade (1993)


Dante’s Inferno, the local arcade, has just installed a new VR game called “Arcade.”  Showing up to try Dante’s Inferno, Alex Manning (Megan Ward) and her friends are immediately drawn to play.  Once in the game, the main villain and namesake, Arcade acts as an overlord, challenging players, learning and adapting as gameplay progresses.  Little do they know, any players that lose are then imprisoned within the game and disappear from the real world.  As Alex and her remaining friends try to reverse the effects of the game they find the plans for world domination through at home models.

  • Arcade cabinet:  Embracing arcades in a similar way that we’ve seen VR appear in arcades today, the Arcade cabinet has players step in and sit down in a photobooth sized game pod.  With the pod came a viewer for visual output that resembles the stereoscopes of the 1800’s that were some of of the first devices to separate left and right eye views to create a single image.  The cabinet also came with an attached set of haptic gloves for both tracking and sense of touch.
  • Head mounted display:   With expansion to at home devices came the transition away from an arcade cabinet to setups a little closer to what you’ll see coming from the Big Three (Oculus, HTC, and Sony).  The Arcade head mounted display has the profile of ski goggle and includes eye holes for assumed pass through vision.
  • Haptic gloves:  Similar to the gloves attached to the cabinet, the at home version exoskeleton design brings hand tracking and touch to VR.

Brainscan (1994)


Billed as an interactive horror game, Brainscan is the latest videogame to grab the interest of Michael Brower (Edward Furlong).  Once gameplay begins, Michael is introduced to Trickster, a visual mix between David Bowie and Freddy Krueger, who acts as his guide through a story filled with murder and dismemberment.  Upon waking up the next morning, Michael finds that all of the events he remembers from his play of Brainscan have also coincidentally occurred around his neighborhood in real life.  Did Trickster and his Brainscan make him a murderer?

  • Full immersion: A videogame that induces hypnosis, Brainscan interfaces with the subconscious of any player to bend them to the will of the game.  Once controlled, all players believe they are playing a game when they are actually acting in real life.

Disclosure (1994)


Michael Douglas and Demi Moore become entangled in a complex power struggle within an expanding tech company, DigiCom.  Losing his own network access, Douglas’s character must commandeer one of DigiCom’s VR systems to track down the files to clear his name.

  • Head mounted display:  With a similar profile to Sony’s Playstation VR the headset is then also depicted within VR.  Within the program, the profile is mimicked on the user’s avatar but is instead used as an augmented reality device with a heads up display.
  • Locomotion:  Placed in the middle of the tracking area is an omnidirectional treadmill that  that allows the user to walk in any direction.
  • Body/hand tracking:  Strikingly similar to the Lighthouse sensors shipped with the HTC Vive, two cameras placed in opposite corners emit lasers that scan up and down to track the motions of both the body and hands.
  • Hand interaction:  Initiated via keyboard and mouse input, once in the VR program a single glove is worn and used to interact with screens and items.

Hackers (1995)


Known to be a cult classic of the cyber punk 90s, Hackers is most famous for, you guessed it, it’s portrayal and focus around computer hacking.  Moving to a new school, Dade “Crash Override, formally Zero Cool” Murphy (Johnny Lee Miller) works his way into a hacker group that introduces him to Kate “Acid Burn” Libby (Angelina Jolie).  Together, they end up entrenched in a plot that leads them to trying to hack into Eugene “The Plague” Belford’s (Fisher Stevens) formidable Gibson supercomputer of Ellingson Mineral Company.

  • Head mounted display: Used during the Gibson hack attempt, Dade wears a Google Glass like headset with a drop down heads up display.  On the display, Dade is able to fly through the low poly virtual environment of the Gibson.
  • Consumer VR:  Seen used by Belford, Hackers actually features a VR rig that, at the time, could be found in arcades across the country.  Combining headset, hack trackers, and omnidirectional treadmill, Belford uses his Virtuality rig as a gaming escape.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)


Making his first appearance in a VR movie, Keanu Reeves (Johnny) lives in a future where one of the only secure ways to transport data is to upload it into storage devices implanted in the brain.  With two different organizations hunting him down for this information, Johnny finds the need to access the Net via his futuristic VR tech.

  • Head mounted display:  Fitting the mold of a headset that Apple would produce, Johnny dons a sleek chrome arc that covers from forehead to nose.
  • Hand tracking: Lacking a keyboard or mouse, Johnny fits his hands into exoskeleton gloves that provide him with all of the motions of the finger and hands.  Though, they do not appear to provide any haptic feedback.

Virtuosity (1995)


Before releasing it to the masses, LAPD is using VR to train their officers in realistic simulations.  To get the best out of their officers they’ve developed the ultimate criminal, SID 6.7 (Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous), by combining the genetic algorithms of the cruelest villains of history.  Housed within his own USB esque module, SID tricks a developer into uploading his algorithm into an android,  bringing him to the real world and continuing a game of cat mouse that began in VR between him and cop, Lt. Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington).

  • Locomotion/Body Tracking:  Resembling an amusement park ride, any cops put into training are strapped into an inverted roller coaster chair with an attached headset.
  • Head mounted display:  Directly incorporated and supported by the simulator arm, the large domed headset is not a hindrance to the user at all.  While immersed in the simulation, the user has full sensory incorporation via a neural connection.

Strange Days (1995)


Prepping for the disaster that was supposed to be Y2K, 1999 Los Angeles is a place where VR is used via the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device).  With a SQUID being illegal, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) has become a VR entrepreneur of sorts and sells bootleg SQUID recordings.  When Lenny comes to possess several recordings of crimes and death, his past as an LA cop is brought up and he must restore order as potential chaos approaches.

  • Head mounted display:  Another cerebral crown similar to the Epoc Emotiv, the headset records events and sensory information from the wearers cerebral cortex to then be watched at any time.

eXistenZ (1999)


Sitting in on the focus group for the latest, next generation VR game, Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh star in this thriller in which technology has taken a turn towards the organic.

  • Console:  Resembling the perfect mix of an Xbox controller and silly putty, circuitry has been replaced by living game pods.  A wired system, rather than plugging into an outlet each game pod plugs into a bioport in the human spine.  Similar to the wetwire technology seen in the Matrix films, these bioports create a full sensory and motion tracking experience for the user.

The Thirteenth Floor (1999)


Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) recently completed a VR environment that perfectly renders a 1937 Los Angeles.  Populating his version of LA are computer generated human characters that live life unaware of their existence in a simulation.  That is, until someone from Fuller’s world logs in.  At that time, any player is thrust into the consciousness of an identical avatar, taking over his life as if it were his own.  When Fuller is murdered in the real world, his protege, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) must virtually travel back in time to follow Fuller’s trail of breadcrumbs.

  • Full immersion:  To become their 1937 doppelganger’s, Fuller, Hall, and all others lie down on a table to then have the table slide back into a chamber not dissimilar from an MRI machine.  With an array of lasers constantly panning from head to toe, a full neural connection is established to induce presence.
  • Head mounted display:  Slimmed down from the MRI-like machine is an over ear headphone style headset.  Assumed to be a neural data transfer, all that Hall must do is lay flat on a table and he is immersed.

The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)


In this dystopian future in which the world is run by machines, Keanu Reeves’ Neo is introduced to the virtual world that he and nearly the entire human race have been living in by taking a red pill offered to him by Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus.

  • Full immersion:  Humans are wetwired into the Matrix via cables attached to ports connecting their brain and spines to the network.  This creates exact sensory replication of a reality in which the laws of physics only apply to those unaware of the nature of the system.

The Cell (2000)


In a situation that is strikingly similar to the Apple vs. FBI standoff, psychologist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) must enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to find the location of his latest victim before she dies.  Using the latest VR technology, entering his mind means results in full presence and experience of the twisted mind of a killer.

  • Head mounted display:  Suspended horizontally by cables, Deane and Novak use a combination of chemicals and a non traditional cloth head mounted display to sensory immersion.  With circuitry woven in and localized over the face, both parties have a cloth placed on their head.  The chemicals, injected into the arm, induce a sleep like trance but allow mind mapping and the transmission of signals from one mind to another.
  • Haptic/body tracking suit:  Inspired by our own body’s inner workings, the haptic suits are designed to mimic the layout of the muscles; in both look and function.  With appropriately placed external muscles, as the mind attempts to move about the consciousness, the suit induces movement.

Minority Report (2002)


Murder no longer occurs in the future. Using the clairvoyance of the “Precogs,” the PreCrime police unit, led by Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is able to prevent murders before they occur.  Are these murders guaranteed to happen?  Is it acceptable to lock up someone for a crime they were foreseen to do but never actually committed due to police intervention?

  • Hand tracking:  With limited time, every Precog vision must be dissected and deciphered to discern the finer details of each possible crime.  To maximize efficiency, the department has replaced the keyboard, mouse, and regular computer monitor with gestural interaction on an interactive wall.  Through a combination of swiping, pinching, pulling, and more, Anderton is able to used his gloved hands to shuffle through, edit, and interact with the computer interface.
  • Full immersion:  Voluntarily used by consumers at VR cafes and induced to would be murderers, exterior neural hookups induce immersion within individual VR pods.

Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003)


“Game Over” is billed as the first major VR title to hit the market.  Imprisoned within cyberspace, the game’s developer, The Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone), builds the game around himself as a way to trick players into releasing him.  In an attempt to stop him before the consumer release, spy, Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) enters the game and becomes trapped, prompting her brother and ex-spy Juni (Daryl Sabara) to unretire and follow her in.  Teaming up with beta testers, they must battle their way through robot battle arenas, street racing, lava rivers and more to stop the Toymaker before it is too late.

  • Head mounted display:  Billed as a 3D movie, Juni dons the same headgear as the audience to get his fully immersive experience.  Wearing the simple yet classic red and cyan lenses, he shows what the future could hold for VR with headsets fitting within the profile of modern glasses.
  • Locomotion:  To gain a competitive edge, Juni is placed within a zero gravity chamber to provide full range of motion for all movements.

The Congress (2013)


Torn between her career and her family, Robin Wright plays herself in a fictional world in which moviemaking is being disrupted by some of the latest technology.  With the caveat of never being able to act again, Wright is presented with an opportunity to preserve herself digitally so that studios can insert and use her likeness as they wish.  Fast forwarding twenty years after accepting the deal, Wright has become one of the biggest names in the industry for films that she never had to do a physical thing for.  Being recognized as a trailblazer for this breakthrough technology, Wright travels to the award show in an animation zone, an area where chemical inhalation induces a perception of an animated version of yourself.  Defying laws of physics and nature, the animation zone presents Wright with the convolutions of the human mind and another choice to embrace the next generation of moviemaking and technology.

  • Image capture: Upon signing the contract, Wright is ushered into a half dome with an array of hundreds of inward facing cameras designed to capture every nook, cranny, and feature of her physical being.  An advanced version of scanning and imaging technologies that are already being used today to preserve the human likenesses.

The Zero Theorem (2013)


Waiting for a phone call about the meaning of life, computer programmer Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) isolated himself as he attempts to crack the Zero Theorem.

  • Haptic/body tracking suits:  Leaving only the face open, a VR onesie covers the entire body, relaying both full tracking and haptic responses.  The suit is synced directly with the synapses of the brain and connects to the computer via a cable ponytail.
  • Head mounted display: Lacking a headset other than the hood of the haptic suit, the user interacts with a flat screen and can access VR simply by pressing the enter button for full sensory immersion.
  • Locomotion:  Though only shown briefly, locomotion for some experiences is accomplished via pedaling and is paired with a gamepad for interaction.

Holidays: Christmas VR (2016)


Debuting at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Holidays: Christmas VR stars Seth Green as a hapless dad trying to get his son the hottest Christmas gift on the market, the UVU VR headset.  Not just a movie featuring VR tech, the film is also an exploration in VR storytelling.  Whenever a character in the film puts on the UVU headset, the moviegoer can don their own headset to transform the film from the traditional 2D screen to 360 degrees in a similar way that the red and cyan 3D glasses were used in cinemas in the past.

  • Head mounted display: Utilizes a form factor head mounted display that evokes thoughts of the View Master

Creative Control (2016)


Not too far in the future, David (Benjamin Dickinson) lives in a world where all technology has taken a turn towards the simplistic style typically seen at Apple.  David is struggling to balance work and life when he is tasked with overseeing the biggest ad campaign of his career, Augmenta.  Billed as the first actually convincing augmented reality system, David’s time with his prototype only ends up digging himself into a deeper hole.

  • Head mounted display:  Built around an open source AR operating system and fit into a clear Wayfarer mold, the Augmenta glasses offer seamless immersion. Similar to technology seen in smartphones, the Augmenta glasses can be spoken to to perform actions.
  • Hand tracking:  Beyond spoken word, the hands are the primary source of interaction with the Augmenta interface. Larger menus and data sets are seen to be scrolled through via waving of the hand gestures.  Smaller interactions are generally controlled via touching the tip of the thumb to the tip of different fingers to varied inputs.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)


The latest blockbuster from Marvel, Civil War features a scene originally perceived as a simple flashback to the last time that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saw his parents.  Upon further inspection, it turns out that it is actually an on stage projection of the memory directly from a current day Stark wearing augmented reality glasses.

  • Head mounted display:  With no greater profile than his normal glasses, Stark is not only able to project his memories but is also able to alter the projection as you would a normal memory.  Called the B.A.R.F. (Binarily Augmented Retro Framing) system, the glasses neurally tap to the hippocampus, the center in the brain associates with emotions and memory.

Plausible or not, Hollywood has always managed to entertain and push the imagination with their ideas of what VR could be and it doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.  With increasing appearances in film festivals, Ready Player One slated to hit the big screen in 2017 and swirling rumors of an adaptation for Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, we have a lot to look forward to.

Did we miss any?  Please keep the discussion going in the comment section below.

About the Scout

Tom Buchanan

Tom is a cofounder and hardware engineer for Contact CI, a company developing VR input gloves. In his spare time he can be found playing ice hockey, rugby, or reading Ready Player One for the nth time.

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