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What will the future of VR be? Ask David Cronenberg.
07.02.14

What will the future of VR be? Ask David Cronenberg.

Illustration by PJ McQuade

This article originally appeared in our virtual reality issue. You can order a copy here

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The room was cast in a dark blue glow, star-lit by glass reflections and other strange colours. Squint and it looks like the 80s nouveau glass-walled apartment of one Max Renn, but we’ll get back to him later. Sounds are muffled in a sleepy space, with shelves of dangling specimen jars—some empty, others two-thirds full of some fluid—each soaking a POD.

The Personal On Demand (POD), a palm-sized, fleshy, 3D-printed pronged critter, looks like a Pokémon spattered with various genitalia. The POD is a product of BODY/MIND/CHANGE, a beta program for a bio-engineered apparatus, one that seeks to sync your real world with your digital persona in a gnarly, invasive way. The natural evolution of a smartphone, the prison of your virtual self. A strange thing to find in bulk at the TIFF Bell Lightbox movie theater, but not when it’s part of a David Cronenberg project—in which case, a phallic arachnid techno-nightmare is totally consistent.

The natural evolution of a smartphone, the prison of your virtual self. 

The augmented reality game that spawned this thing, called BODY/MIND/CHANGE, isn’t over yet, we can only guess how POD will go horrifyingly off the rails, but “test subjects” have received their little friends in the mail. Delivered in small biohazard baggies, each POD features different minutiae: skin warps, limbs and details influenced by how the subject has participated so far. In the first stage users sifted through an internet questionnaire, not unlike an online dating profile, but broken up by glitches, uncomfortable videos and unnerving questions asking how long you will ideally remain “100% human”. At one point, POD asks what you hate most, promising to keep it a secret. Immediately POD’s public Twitter account messages you back your answer.

Cronenberg acts as a spokesman, appearing in videos to hype the POD initiative. (Well, as hype as his sullen discourse gets.) Within the narrative, the completed POD latches itself to the swell of your neck, beginning implantation. The image flags some of Cronenberg’s filmic work; the theme flags practically all of it.

The body-horror maestro does not hide his obsession with technology, but his view of it is an aroused variation of paranoia. From the oozing pickle Seth Brundle turns into in The Fly to the deep, sick hole of Videodrome in which Max Renn loses himself, machines and their effects on us are portrayed as a perversion, a lust we’re powerless to resist. In these worlds, virtual reality stands out as a particularly narcotic experience, a drug that allows us to hallucinate a better, higher state of reality, in spite of the horrifying consequences.

“So how does it feel, your real life? The one you came back for?” asks the blasé game developer Allegra Geller in Cronenberg’s virtual world-to-come eXistenZ’. “It feels completely unreal,” responds Ted Pikul, Geller’s de facto bodyguard and short-term beta-tester.

Now that a raft of VR headsets are readying themselves for public consumption, eXistenZ is an especially charming proposition. While the only side effect from my time with the Oculus Rift was about 20 minutes of nausea, one of eXistenZ’s more sinister tricks is giving no signal when games end or begin. Characters lose their own identities to the desires of their avatars, acting directly against their will. This sensation is eerily familiar given the overly dictated actions of many videogames’ protagonists.

This legacy weighs heavily on the POD. The game consoles of eXistenZ, also called pods, are bean-shaped organs that plug into the lower spine of the user, allowing players to live out a free-form fantasy without ever having to stand. Formerly average citizens, like Willem Dafoe’s garage worker, have spectacularly inflated egos; game designers are called “demons” and targeted by militant groups.

As in Pikul’s long, long night in eXistenZ, Renn is poisoned by Videodrome, slowly learning to embrace his warped reality. 

Videodrome’s Max Renn wasn’t a willing participant; he wasn’t a volunteer. A glowing skin-tone dome was placed on his head, which spurred the other guy in the room to leave before having to see the “freaky stuff”. It sure didn't send him to Jerry Seinfeld's apartment or a classroom full of dolphins, as early Oculus Rift experiments charmingly have. This device sent Renn into a violent, erotic augmented perception, a mind-warp implanted from a conspiracy-crafted pirate porn channel, where the lines between reality and sick hardcore influence blur into static. As in Pikul’s long, long night in eXistenZ, Renn is poisoned by Videodrome, slowly learning to embrace his warped reality.

It’s a grotesque interpretation of Marshall McLuhan’s koan, where message, medium, and now messenger are a chimera. Renn’s body and skin accept the transformation: his hands become weapons, his abdomen a vaginal Betamax player. Eventually, in order to complete the fight against Videodrome, Renn surrenders his organic body, becoming “the new flesh”.

It’s a pornographic conversation we’re having more and more. Where will the body belong in Kurzweil’s singularity, when we can comfortably exist as efficient and free data? Where does our body belong right now, as we surrender our time to advance the lives and status of 3D characters on a hard drive? If given the option, would you go face-first into this future? Can you resist your fantasies, ones that can be programmed and enacted, even at the risk that they will destroy you?

In structure, Cronenberg makes very classic works of sci-fi, tales of an ideal invention gone awry. But Cronenberg’s inventors are perverts of science, softly stroking their creations, ambivalent to the slimy discharge. It’s a forewarning that should stick especially with videogames. With VR, we come to an impasse. Maybe not now, but in some strange future to be, we’ll see the option to abandon our schlubby husks and embrace the data and polygons of our mighty Elder Scrolls heroes. But there’s a cost—where there’s hubris there’s always a terrible cost—and our genie’s lamp is more likely a monkey’s paw.

As for POD, as wrigglingly creepy as the idea of melding a parasite to our back in lieu of Facebook might be, it’s not an exercise we’re exactly steering clear from. In social media, we’re trying to enact VR, as our profiles become the projected perception of ourselves, and we get a horny devilish satisfaction from creating a sexier, more attractive avatar than the body slouched in the chair. Ideally, this productive, selectively attractive version of us is us, and not just the life without omission. All POD does is suggest that when we arrive at the ultimate destination, we’ll feel our projection with our organs and not just our desires, that there will be no difference between ourselves and the selves we create. All POD does, like Cronenberg’s other work, is make what’s already happening look disgusting.

We’ve sealed our fate some time ago. Long live the new flesh.