Virtual reality, then and now

In the 1980s and 1990s, the term ‘virtual reality’ was understood to mean the creation of reality inside the computer – and thus we would need to experience it using complex imaging and interaction systems (3D googles, cursors mapped to the movement of a glove etc.) The implication behind this was the reality itself would be untouched. The real world would simply be a home for the VR equipment: Star Trek imagines it holodeck as a big empty room, for instance. Moreover, since VR ran inside the computer, it only worked when you turned it on – and in movies such as The Lawnmower Man, the nightmare scenario was not being able to get out.

Few people imaginged that when VR came to pass, it would actually involve computers altering the way we acted in reality. The video below shows 100 dancers in central London recreating the dance from Beyonce’s music video for her song ‘Single Ladies’ (which Peter Sagal called ‘a wonderful, brilliantly performed dance number set to an irresistably catchy pop tune’). As a piece of PR in reality, it holds very little value – few people would have the chance to actually see it, as it the dancers and organisers take pains for it to appear to happen spontaneously on the street. It’s over in three minutes, and few of the people who happened to be walking by would actually be able to make sense of it because it only works if you’ve seen the original music video. Indeed, the behaviour of the dancers only really works if it’s watched as a video, passed around virally on the web. It is, essentially, VR: actions in reality that are targeted at, and only make sense when experienced virtually.