Augmented and virtual reality technology have been around in movies for a lot longer than it has been practical in real life. Some modest representations of augmented and virtual reality in films have already been met or surpassed by today’s technology while others seem unlikely to ever be achieved in real life, though their depiction still entertains and intrigues.
Virtual Reality in the Movies
Fortunately, many depictions of virtual reality technology in movies and video games is more complex than that of today, and sometimes needlessly so.
The classic example of virtual reality technology presented in The Matrix involves a complex “neural interface” system that allows the movie’s characters to essentially plug their brains into a computer program — the titular “Matrix” — in which they can move, experience sensations, and download information, and die.
With motion tracking technology and audio and visual input, we can see, hear, and navigate digital worlds pretty well already. Granted we can’t do other things like feel, smell, taste, download information, or die while using today’s virtual reality technology — which doesn’t even require plugging cables into our brains.
A similar but more realistic representation of virtual reality technology from a few years later keeps almost all of the features of the matrix without the pesky cable to the back of the head. In Assassin’s Creed, based on the popular video game series, characters only need to lay on a special bed called The Animus in order to enter a digital world much like that of The Matrix. The key differences are that users cannot control the software of the Animus, they can’t download physical abilities, and if you die in the Animus you don’t die in real life.
Virtual Reality on TV
TV shows tend to offer the most realistic interpretations of virtual reality technology including headsets and a lack of total-body motion tracking, but tend to dwell on potential downsides of the technology.
Netflix’s Kiss Me First is about hackers who use their own technology to control aspects of the VR world and those who spend time there, while Sword Art Online tells the story of players who become trapped in a VR video game due to a potentially fatal glitch.
Augmented Reality in the Movies
While augmented reality is more common in the real world, there seem to be fewer strong examples of it in cinema.
The representation of augmented reality in the Iron Man movies, which came out between The Matrix and Assassin’s Creed, is compelling for a number of reasons.
For one, the applications for which the Iron Man character, played by Robert Downey Jr., uses augmented reality are very realistic. The character regularly uses 3-dimensional images to design parts, much as designers, particularly in the automotive industry, actually do today, though Iron Man has holograms that project up from tables in his lab and doesn’t need to wear any headsets.
A similar but somewhat more realistic interface is the interactive AR screen in Minority Report. As gesture recognition becomes more developed, controlling technology by waving your hands is an ever approaching possibility.
More realistic yet is the Heads Up Display in the Iron Man suit. With his trusty on-board computer, Jarvis, Iron Man can keep track of his suit’s condition and that of the surrounding environment, but he can also do web searches, make phone calls, and much more. The closest we’ve come to this so far is probably Google Glass or HoloLens, though the Iron Man HUD is a pretty good image of a potential future AR.