Ask me to make a list of my all time favourite films, and you’ll find Bladerunner right up there at the top. It has all the classic essential ingredients that are guaranteed to catch my imagination… A dystopian glimpse of a dark future, suspense, mystery, raw violence and an underlying theme that is deeply unsettling, yet commands empathy; all wrapped up in a haunting film noir style.
And it’s definitely a film that causes you to question… There are moral and ethical considerations with which the viewer has to contend, riddles to be solved, and a lot of unanswered ‘whys?’ Then there’s the big question that looms throughout the whole film – Deckard: human, or replicant?
Ridley Scott says he’s a rep, Harrison Ford says human. Philip K. Dick in the original story says he’s quite definitely human. It’s something we need to know if we are to be at peace with the film’s storyline, because – unlike other movies with unanswered questions – this one really does matter. I won’t tell you what I think, you can make you’re own mind up, but it does cause me to wonder just how ‘real’ something needs to be, or appear to be, before it becomes problematic for us – as real humans – to deal with.
Most of us have heard of the Uncanny Valley – that disquieting territory between the real and that which strives to imitate reality. We experience it with those avatars that are just that tiny bit too realistic, with CG movies that feel a little too believable, and with robots that display behaviours far too human for us to feel comfortable with them. It’s a line that VR developers steer close to, but cross at their peril. But just how far is too far?
The latest High Fidelity releases feature facial expression and head movement technology that works with standard 2D webcams – use it with a camera capable of depth perception, or a head mounted display, and your avatar becomes even more weirdly human-like. Shortly we’ll see gaze tracking and improved support for hand gestures, (ie. body language), being built in and, beyond that, Philip & Co are talking about avatars with soft bodies capable of physical interaction. That to me puts them squarely into Uncanny Valley territory – clearly virtual, but oddly realistic… It can be somewhat creepy.
If there’s one thing I really don’t want from a virtual world, it’s being in the presence of avatars that exhibit characteristics that are far more human than digital. I don’t want to feel beady eyes boring into me in a crowd, or see heads swivel in my direction when I make an entrance; I’d rather not have a stranger talk to me in companionable terms, whilst their avatar’s body language is clearly making sleazy moves on me; and I don’t want to see somebody’s pixellated form squish across my windscreen, when I’ve accidentally mowed them down in my badly-driven hippy van. Those – as far as I’m concerned – lie firmly within the remit of real life, they don’t belong in a virtual world, and just the thought of it makes me feel a little queasy.
Quite apart from that, I can’t help feeling that a highly expressive, human-like avatar is going to sap some of the fun and spontaneity from SL. All those misunderstandings that arise so frequently out of the limited methods of communication we currently have at our disposal will no longer be there to prompt our laughter, mockery and endlessly ridiculous conversations. Neither will the ambiguities, misconceptions and downright skullduggery that typifies so many of the exchanges that occur in SL constantly. And what about the inevitable stiff necks, headaches and nausea that are bound to occur as our attention flits involuntarily around the virtual room, trying never to linger on a pair of boobs any longer than is absolutely necessary? It’s an altogether nightmarish scenario.
Is this the future of virtual worlds? Are they to become places where imitations are indistinguishable from real people, and – if so – what effect will that have on us? Personally, I’d rather stick with something that is clearly virtual that something that could all too easily be real.
I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like… tears… in… rain. Time… to die…
Roy Batty (Bladerunner)