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Virtual Reality in Popular Culture

You may be thinking "I have never seen/used a virtual reality product in person, but I do know what one is and how it works...Why is that?!"

The answer is simple: virtual reality has been a popular narrative point in film and television for a long time. It is often used as a way to turn the fantastical into something that seems totally real, but is actually simulated.

Here, we have compiled a list of the top films and TV shows that focus on virtual reality:

Top Films About Virtual Reality

Tron (1982 & 2010)

A computer hacker is abducted into a virtual reality and forced to participate in gladiatorial games where his only chance of escape is with the help of a heroic security program in blockbuster Tron.

When talented computer engineer Kevin Flynn finds out that Ed Dillinger, an executive at his company, has been stealing his work, he tries to hack into the system.

Kevin is transported into the digital world, where he has to face off against Dillinger's computerized likeness, Sark, and the imposing Master Control Program.

Aided by heroes Tron and Yori, Kevin becomes a freedom fighter for the oppressed programs of the grid aiming to free them from their tyrannic leader.

Total Recall (1990 & 2012)

When a man goes for virtual vacation memories of the planet Mars, an unexpected and harrowing series of events forces Douglas Quaid to go to the planet for real - or does he?

Douglas is a bored construction worker in the year 2084 who dreams of visiting the colonized Mars.

He visits "Rekall," a company that plants false memories into people's brains, in order to experience the thrill of Mars without having to travel there.

Something goes wrong during the procedure; and Douglas discovers that his entire life is actually a false memory and that the people who implanted it in his head now want him dead.

Once he has realized his true identity, he travels to Mars to piece together the rest of his identity, as well as to find the man responsible for his implanted memory.

The Lawnmowerman (1992)

Adapted from the short story by Stephen King of the same name, The Lawnmowerman follows the transformation of Jobe Smith - A simple man who is turned into a genius through the application of computer science.

Jobe is transformed by the eccentric Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a worker for Virtual Space Industries that runs experiments in increasing the intelligence of chimpanzees using drugs and virtual reality.

Jobe is inducted onto the programme, and soon becomes infinitely smarter. He begins a relationship with rich widow Marnie - but things take a turn when he brings her into his virtual world. He becomes uncontrollably violent and irrational as a side effect of his medication.

He begins to develop telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers that grow fast, though his mental stability is impaired. He decides to exact revenge on those who abused him when he was "dumb".

Jobe believes his final stage of evolution is to become "pure energy" in the VSI computer mainframe, and from there reach into all the systems of the world - can his madness be stopped in time?

The Matrix (1999)

A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers in hit sci-fi film The Matrix.

The film follows computer hacker Neo, who is approached by a mysterious figure known as Morpheus after Neo is targetted by a series of sinister agents.

Morpheus offers Neo the grisly truth about reality - everything that he knows, everything that he believes to be real, is an artificially simulated world controlled by robots who now rule the world. Humans are used as batteries to power these machines, and they live and die hooked up.

When Neo is released from the Matrix, he and a group of rebels dedicate their lives to overthrowing The Matrix and freeing humankind.

Inception (2010)

A thief, who steals corporate secrets through use of virtual dream-sharing technology, is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO in hit thriller Inception.

Protagonist Dom Cobb is a thief with the rare ability to enter people's dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious using an experimental military virtual reality device.

His skill has made him a hot commodity in the world of corporate espionage but has also cost him everything he loves.

Dom gets a chance at redemption when he is offered a seemingly impossible task: Plant an idea in someone's mind. If he succeeds, it will be the perfect crime, but a dangerous enemy anticipates Cobb's every move.

Dom and his team face various dream levels filled with danger, that threaten to trap them in the target's subconscious forever.

Top TV Shows About Virtual Reality

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994)

Featuring a bigger and better USS Enterprise, Star Trek: The Next Generation is set 78 years after the original series - in the 24th century.

Instead of Capt. James Kirk, a less volatile and more mature Capt. Jean-Luc Picard heads the crew of various humans and alien creatures in their adventures in space -- the final frontier.

Though not solely about virtual reality, this show features one of the best known examples of virtual reality in popular culture, including the ability for users to interactively modify scenarios in real time with a natural language interface.

The holodeck within the show presents as a staging environment in which participants may engage with different virtual reality environments.

From a storytelling point of view, it permits the introduction of a greater variety of locations and characters that might not otherwise be possible, such as events and persons in the Earth's past.

Harsh Realm (1999 - 2000)

The Matrix meets Platoon in sci-fi drama Harsh Realm.

A soldier, Tom Hobbes, is recruited for a government-sponsored war game involving flesh-and-blood people, digital representations of those people, and entities that look real but exist only in a virtual reality universe.

This universe is known as Harsh Realm, ruled by the clever retired sergeant major, Omar Santiago.

In the world of Harsh Realm, a small nuclear bomb is detonated in the program's version of New York City, killing four million people and thrusting its participants into a post-apocalyptic disaster scenario.

It is in this world that Hobbes must survive, defeat Santiago, save the real world, and somehow return to his real life and his fiancée, Sophie Green.

Sword Art Online (2012 - 2014)

In 2022, a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online is released.

With the NerveGear, a helmet that stimulates the user's five senses via their brain, players can experience and control their in-game characters with their minds.

10,000 players log into the SAO's mainframe cyberspace for the first time, only to discover that they are unable to log out. Creator Akihiko Kayaba appears and tells the players that they must beat all 100 floors of Aincrad, a steel castle which is the setting of SAO, if they wish to be free.

Those who suffer in-game deaths or forcibly remove the NerveGear out-of-game will suffer real-life deaths.

Kazuto "Kirito" Kirigaya, is one of 1,000 testers in the game's previous closed beta. With the advantage of previous VR gaming experience and a drive to protect other beta testers from discrimination, he isolates himself from the greater group and plays the game alone.

Sword Art Online

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Westworld (2016 - Ongoing)

Explore a virtual world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged without consequence in hit thriller Westworld.

Westworld isn't your typical amusement park. Intended for rich vacationers, the futuristic park - which is looked after by robotic hosts - allows its visitors to live out their fantasies through artificial consciousness.

Something is not quite right in the world of Westworld though - as hosts begin to realise their consciousness, shady goings-on behind the scenes test relationships and the dangerous man in black begins his quest for mysterious sub-game The Maze.

The stability of Westworld is threatened - will it be saved, or will anarchy reign supreme?