Two Short Sci-Fi Speculations on Augmented and Virtual Reality

May 25
"Hyper-Reality" (2016) by Keiichi Matsuda
"Uncanny Valley" (2015) by 3DAR

These two new short sci fi films reveal the dark, dystopic side of augmented and virtual reality. “Hyper-Reality” shows how AR can expand our world with information overlays while also further entrapping us into a capitalist game of flexible labor. “Uncanny Valley” reveals the ways in which VR immersion can become a tool for exploiting addicted gamers to perform the darkest of tasks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think AR has amazing social potentials and I’ve experienced and worked on awe-inducing VR projects. But often the narratives of both technologies are blindly utopic and mask the darker possibilities of these potentially paradigm-shifting technologies.

It’s up to science fiction (and design fiction) to build scenarios to explore the social implications of “disruptive” technologies. It’s even more exciting to see short (“Hyper-Reality” was also crowd-funded) films, that can quickly speak to an online audience and don’t need a bloated budget (but do need a lot of VFX). Both short films allow audiences to momentarily step inside a potential future and think critically about how to stop such a historical trajectory from becoming a reality.

Keiichi Matsuda has become a designer/filmmaker to look out for since he first posted his “Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop” video 6 years ago on Vimeo. Since then, he’s posted a number of other short non-narrative videos; many exploring augmented reality implications for the built environment and human perception. Two years ago, he began a kickstarter campaign to raise money for “Hyper-Reality,” which was finally released on May 16, 2016.

“Hyper-Reality” drops us head-first into a chaotic and noisy future of endless distractions. The short film starts with our protagonist, Juliana Restrepo playing a game – setting up the larger metaphor for the gamification of labor and life. Theorists, such as McKenzie Wark (“playbor”), Tiziana Terranova (“free labor”), and Hardt and Negri (“affective labor”), have pointed to the ways in which capital has further expanded to profit off of everyday creative, social, or playful activities. The web has become the perfect medium for centralizing and digitizing our activities, making ephemeral expressions into mineable data.

Matsuda’s film reveals that our current “gig-economy” (think über, airbnb, and freelancing) will only become worse, as citizens scrape by running basic errands for those better-to-do than themselves. Luckily, our AR glass (or implants) will provide colorful avatars and advertisements to distract from such mundane work. At one point, Juliana must restart her AR operating system after a cyber attack. For a brief moment, all of the visual clutter disappears and we see the stark contrast of a bland marketplace. Our techno-lust for entertainment has become our prison.

Juliana’s day only gets worse as she’s attacked by a cloaked bandit who resets her identity and steals all of her “loyalty” points. Since there seems to be no government protection and her company support system is incompetent and automated, she seeks solace in the Catholic Church. With a final few swipes in the shape of the sign of the cross, she renews her ludic labor; reborn as a Catholic. “Hyper-Reality” ends with a sense of helplessness, even while it playfully points to the ways in which all institutions use rituals as gamic forms of indoctrination.

Augmented Reality could be a device for expanding our cognitive possibilities, overlaying additional computational sensing and networked information. But, as the film argues, it will more likely be a space for advertisers, businesses and private property to sneak into every corner of our senses.

“Uncanny Valley” is made by the VFX and animation studio 3DAR in Buenos Aires. Their portfolio usually includes colorful animations, live performances, and advertisements. This film appears to be their first serious foray into live action, working with writer/director Federico Heller.

The film at first glance appears to be a beautiful but basic story about gaming addiction. With seamless visual effects, the film slides between the virtual gaming world and the drab, dilapidated slums of the addicts’ real lives. It uses interviews to give it a real-world investigative documentary feel – mixing genres and perspectives in the process.

The virtual war game world is beautifully rendered and appears to come straight from a science fiction concept art painting. But while the viewer becomes lost in the surreal action sequence of the gamers’ collective hallucination, the central protagonist wanders off the edges of the frame. He begins to test the boundaries of the virtual world.

Ultimately, he finds that the virtual fiction is overlaid upon a real-world combat zone. Their special forces mission is actually controlling military robots attacking a village – in what appears to be the Middle East. The film goes from chastising video game addiction to revealing VR’s capability of creating detached and exploited killers.

The film reveals a system of crowd-sourced drone warfare. Once the future is full of PTSD ridden drone pilots and an angry public, the military must find new nefarious and obscured means for their bidding. “Playbor” is utilized to perform the most inhumane tasks by hiding it under a fantastical game surface.

In both cases, these films offer a dystopic moral fable to disrupt our unquestioning obsession with disruptive technology.

Science fiction’s power is in its ability to imagine “what-if” scenarios that telescope threads of our world into the future. Often with feature films, those initial provocations become lost under the generic weight of the central narrative. “The Matrix” becomes a love story, “Blade Runner” becomes a detective story, “Elysium” becomes an action-hero story, etc. The quest for closure often limits the initial expansive and eye-opening introductions. The initial and imagination-inducing establishing shot of the fictional world becomes lost in the minutiae of individual characters and genre tropes.

Short science fiction films offer a form to focus on the “what-if” question and leave the rest to the audience’s imagination. The audience gets a sliver of the world – its aesthetic, its social system, its economic logic – and is then left to ponder its provocation. In both cases, these films offer a dystopic moral fable to disrupt our unquestioning obsession with disruptive technology. In short, they break the spell of our enchantment.

The next step is to create not just dystopic but alt-utopic science fiction, that models alternative socio-technical systems. Systems that are inclusive, sustainable, and speak to desires outside of the dominant western, neoliberal conceptions of techno-culture. That’s the truly radical imaginative gesture.