The wait is over. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has arrived in movie theaters, the reviews have been published, the box office and ancillary revenue has begun to flow, and the discussions over the director’s treatment of Ernest Cline’s virtual reality-focused novel can begin.
Ready Player One has been under the VR spotlight for at least the last year, which has heightened the need for the movie to perform well at the box office. The movie was saddled with blockbuster status from day one, much of which was related to its legendary director and the source material’s never-ending list of pop culture references. Add into the mix the book’s reliance on gamer culture and the importance of a virtual community, then it is not hard to see why the film version has been a topic of conversation in the VR sector.
Early public reaction to the movie would indicate that some concerns can be set aside for the moment. As you might expect from a Spielberg-helmed production, Ready Player One had a solid opening weekend. Thanks to a combination of pre-release buzz and public curiosity, the movie generated around $53 million in the United States alone, with a certified fresh rating of 75% on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
That is good news for the film's producers, distributors, and its director, especially considering the movie (which opens on March 29) had an estimated budget of $175 million. Box office profits aside, the film is already on course to be a pivotal moment for virtual reality.
The caveat is that the VR ecosystem the movie puts front and center is less about the raw potential of VR creation and more about how an immersive universe can isolate a person from the mundane nature of real life. In other words, exactly the sort of message that the VR sector would have preferred to avoid.
Immersive Entertainment Is The Future
Both versions (book and movie) of Ready Player One focus on the virtual worlds and locations that exist in the fictional OASIS. In addition, the technology detailed in Ready Player One is often state-of-the-art, so much so that it becomes obvious that the VR ecosystem in 2045 is sustained by constant and necessary upgrades.
Anybody with a passing interest in virtual reality or location-based VR will be able to pick up what the technology depicted in the movie is supposed to do. Omnidirectional treadmills, haptic gloves, and bodysuits are all featured prominently, while the massive online community that exists within the OASIS bears a startling resemblance to long-established online worlds such as Second Life.
As you would expect, headsets are ubiquitous throughout and vary in quality depending on who is wearing them.
The hero of the story—Wade Watts—starts off with a standard wireless HMD before he upgrades to what looks like a pair of high-tech ski goggles after winning the first challenge set by the OASIS's creator James Halliday. At the same time, faceless characters that work for the obligatory evil corporation are strapped into high-end devices that give them unlimited options and abilities, with the film showcasing an all-in-one piece of hardware that would not be out of place in a location-based VR center.
With the exception of the lead characters and the corporate foot soldiers, it is worth noting that the many of the HMDs being worn in the physical world seem to be very similar to those available today. As the final battle for control of the OASIS rages, the camera switches to a real-time perspective and reveals what looks like a lot of people “fighting” in either a Samsung Gear VR or what appears to be an HTC Vive.
Haptic applications are featured, but it is noticeable that the film assumes that we all know what the technology on display actually does in an immersive experience. In fact, one of the more cringe-worthy moments in the movie comes when Wade kicks the villain in a sensitive area during a VR fight and the affected part of the bodysuit glows red in the real world, despite the villain disconnecting from the OASIS post-fight.
One additional element that is glossed over is whether or not the OASIS offers different versions of experiences depending on the quality of HMD or haptic tech being used. The film makes numerous references to the digital currency that you can earn or win within the OASIS—which can then be spent to on virtual or physical goods—but the assumption is that everybody has the same view of accessible content within the virtual utopia itself.
On the flip side, the movie never explains how the OASIS works, how it made its creators trillionaires, or why people are willing to risk becoming VR slaves just to stay in there. That last plot point might have something to do with the fact that the central location depicted in 2045—Columbus, Ohio—is a familiar dystopian city, but the distinct gap between the rich and the poor in both virtual and physical reality is made all too apparent from the first minute.
And the concept of presence? Safe to say that the movie just ignores it in favor of showcasing a virtual framework where a person can be literally anything they want.
Virtual Reality As Escapism
Irrespective of how well the movie did on its opening weekend, the question remains as to whether or not it provides the audience with more than just a theme of VR-as-escapism. Media attention in the weeks prior to release has focused on the effect that the movie will have on the virtual reality ecosystem itself, especially as the tech highlighted in the film may not be familiar to the average cinema goer.
Phrases such as “awaken the sleepy VR market” and “timely marketing boost” have been bandied about in the media, while a well-received preview at the recent South by Southwest indicated that the movie was poised to give VR real-world traction.
With that in mind, Spielberg’s vision of Cline’s OASIS has been a source of debate for some time. There has been an air of nervous expectation surrounding the project within the virtual reality industry, some of which has been related to a concern that the success of the movie itself will be seen as a reflection of public awareness about VR.
It is worth noting that Cline’s dystopian vision of a future where humanity prefers a virtual life to the physical world has itself been a polarizing piece of fiction.
The author’s love letter to the 1980s is filled with obscure references to video games, movies and television shows, most of which fall firmly into the category of geek culture. Ready Player One was a best-seller when it was released in 2011, but there were numerous critics who thought that the book was nothing more than an attempt to jam as many pop culture themes into 375 pages as possible. In addition, there have always been doubts that the dozens of fictional worlds described in the book would struggle to make a successful transition to the silver screen.
Although the film has flaws, the depiction of virtual reality experiences is handled well. The OASIS is less photo-realistic and more game-like, while the physical world seems drab and lifeless by comparison. Set pieces within the OASIS itself are well executed, and the overall arch of Cline’s boy-plus-friends-against-corporate-America theme is essentially intact.
Providing that public interest in Ready Player One is maintained, it would be reasonable to assume that it could generate awareness towards standalone virtual reality experiences in VR arcades that are both related to the movie itself and recent films such as Jumanji or Justice League.
According to VR Focus, Ready Player One-centric content has already been rolled out to VR Arcades in the United States, with the anticipation being that these will act as an entry point to other immersive experiences. In some respects, Ready Player One could do for virtual reality what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
“Ready Player One has inspired both the current and future state of the VR industry and VIVE is in a unique position to deliver on the promise of VR today,” said Joel Breton, GM of VIVE Studios, in a pre-movie press release. “We’ve brought together a group of our favorite developers to bring content inspired by ‘Ready Player One’ to life in a way that resonates with audiences long after they have left the theater.”
Is This The VR Movie We Were Looking For?
We all know that virtual reality has not had the best of records on the big screen. Movies such as The Lawnmower Man, Existenz, and Gamer have ended up doing more harm than good, while Total Recall managed to put virtual vacations into an unflattering light.
In fact, films depicting immersive experiences have rarely been box office hits, with the possible exception of Inception and The Matrix. When taken in that context, Ready Player One does a reasonable job of highlighting the potential for virtual reality in a real-world, albeit dystopian, setting.
The underlying problem with the movie is that Ready Player One is essentially an updated version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The poor kid gets to search for a golden ticket, and when he triumphs against all odds, he is rewarded with the keys to the virtual kingdom. Which he then shuts down for two days a week so that people can make the most of the physical world.
Overall, the movie feels like a missed opportunity. Cline’s original vision of a society that wanted to escape to a virtual universe wasn't intended to be a two-hour family-friendly movie, but Spielberg’s Ready Player One could have done better in highlighting both the current and future state of the virtual reality ecosystem. The movie prefers to give viewers a thrill-ride that is less about the value of immersive experiences and more about how easy (and addictive) it is to shut out the real world entirely in VR.
And that is exactly how we all feared that virtual reality in the OASIS would be portrayed.