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'VR.5' Steps Into Critical Real World : Virtual-Reality Pros Weigh In on Fox's Cyber-Noir Series


At a new media conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center last week, a session on the emerging field of virtual reality veered off course when one of the panelists mentioned that psychiatrists are exploring virtual reality to treat subjects.

"I have a question," interjected another panelist, Gregory Panos, president of Sophistech Research in Beverly Hills and publisher of the "Virtual Reality Sourcebook." "Are any of these psychiatrists doing anything to deal with the brain damage caused by people in the entertainment industry who are putting together these virtual-reality movies and TV shows that we're forced to consume?"

Specifically, Panos was referring to "VR.5," a cyber-noir TV series that premiered two weeks ago on Fox, teaming with "The X-Files" to produce the highest Friday ratings in Fox's history. The surreal sci-fi show stars Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, a shy telephone line worker who discovers that, using her home computer and a modem, she can burst into people's subconscious minds and pull them into a psychedelic landscape inside her computer.

In the premiere, Singer's character used this newfound cyber-optic skill to uncover the serial-killer history of a co-worker. The premiere was greeted enthusiastically by TV critics, but it drew exasperating sighs from the real virtual-reality crowd at the conference, all of whom had watched it eagerly.

"You could get much richer story lines and plot devices out of real VR technology and how it will enhance, affect and change what it means to be human," said the virtual-reality session moderator, Dave Blackburn, president of Virtual Ventures in Manhattan Beach. "Unfortunately, we have to get VR 'Silence of the Lambs.' "

"VR.5" co-executive producer Thania St. John, one of five credited creators, said the serial-murder angle was featured at the urging of Fox, to create a sense of early danger to hook viewers. Future episodes will be more psychological in nature, she promised.

"Our business is pretend," said St. John, who wrote the premiere episode for executive producer John Sacret Young, co-creator of "China Beach." "I admire these people because I do know what they're doing. They're scientists, cutting-edge scientists. That's not what we do. We're here to entertain people, and we respond to trends in a totally different way than they do."

Hollywood has shown verifiable interest in virtual reality in such upcoming projects as "Virtuosity," starring Denzel Washington. It figured prominently in Michael Crichton's thriller "Disclosure," and before that in the horror film "The Lawnmower Man."

In some ways, the virtual-reality industry has not responded all that differently to its own technology than Hollywood has, by focusing primarily on entertainment and gaming applications because that's where the money is.

Virtual reality uses a sophisticated arcana of technology to enable individuals to enter and interact with a computer-generated environment. At Pasadena's "digital theme park," Virtual World, for example, players can battle each other from the interactive cockpit of their three-story walking tanks or race in hovering vehicles through the mining canals of Mars.

But the virtual-reality industry also shares a common, fundamental vision to stretch the boundaries of how people think, act and interact. These "immersive experiences" can be used for research, design, education and even healing. GreyStone Technology Inc. in San Diego is working with Steven Spielberg's Starbright Pediatric Network to install a virtual-reality ride on the back of a winged dinosaur as a method of pain distraction for severely ill children at the UCLA Medical Center.

"My feeling about 'VR.5' is that--like most of what's going on in Hollywood--they've learned a little bit about virtual reality," Panos said. "So whatever they understand it to be, they're using that as a dramatic vehicle to tell stories that are traditionally the kinds of stories they've been telling forever. They haven't gleaned any spiritual insights from the people who are driving this industry and building the technologies."

That's where the makers of "VR.5" strongly disagree. They visited exhibits, interviewed people in the industry and poured over literature. They distinguished between the philosophers and the technocrats, and they aligned themselves with the former, those who see virtual reality as a new way to plumb humanity.

Howard Rheingold's seminal book "Virtual Reality" was a big source of inspiration.

"It's about psychic plunging, discovering the essence of what it is to be a human being," said co-producer Geoffrey Hemwall, another of the show's five creators. "(Rheingold) believes virtual reality is the new discovering the ancient. He talks about the collision of mythology and dreams with what technology at its very best in the future will do by enabling us to explore those primordial places."

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