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7 examples of Virtual Reality as depicted in the 1980s and 1990s

7 examples of Virtual Reality as depicted in the 1980s and 1990s

The concept of virtual reality was around long before Oculus, Samsung and HTC emerged with their Virtual Reality headsets in the past 12 months or so. VR Film Pro takes a look at the some of the interesting depictions of VR in film and TV over the past 30-odd years.


Brainstorm (1983)

Christopher Walken in Brainstorm.

Christopher Walken in Brainstorm.

This 1983 film directed by Douglas Trumbull (who also led the special effects team on 2001: A Space Odyssey), follows a team of scientists who develop a means of recording memories. These memories can be ‘played back’ and experienced by another person, with full sense of emotion and all senses.

The film stars Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson, but the movie was almost scrapped following the death of Wood during a production break. The film was eventually completed but failed to recoup its investment at the box office. It did, however, succeed in influencing a host of other VR-themed films.



The Twilight Zone: Dreams for Sale (1985)

The Twilight Zone: Dreams for Sale

The Twilight Zone: Dreams for Sale.

Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, this short (a mere nine minutes long) episode of The Twilight Zone sees Meg Foster in the lead role as a woman on an idyllic picnic with her husband and two daughters. All seems well until Foster’s character notices her husband’s speech and the scenery stuttering and repeating. She becomes increasingly confused before awakening in a “Dreamatron” VR machine running a “Country Picnic” programme. The episode, which in some ways foreshadows The Matrix, can be viewed on YouTube.


Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)

The Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Holodeck was introduced into the Star Trek universe in 1987 with the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and gave rise to some great episodes. The concept differs from most other VR concepts shown in film; it is more advanced and does not rely on clunky headsets of any kind. Instead, the Holodeck uses such phenomena as transported matter, tractor beams and shaped force fields to create a VR environment that is pretty much indistinguishable from reality.


Back to the Future Part 2 (1989)

Back to the Future Part II

Michael J. Fox wearing VR/AR goggles in Back to the Future Part II.

Robert Zemeckis’s 1989 sequel to Back to the Future offers only a glimpse of virtual reality in the film’s depiction of 2015, which was still 27 years away when the film went into production. It’s not quite clear whether the JVC-branded goggles shown are for virtual reality or augmented reality, although Marty Junior’s interaction with his surroundings suggests the latter. Either way, the filmmakers made a pretty good prediction, with Google Glass and Samsung Gear VR both being available in 2015.


Strange Days (1995)

Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days

Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days

Strange Days, an American sci-fi movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow, offers a dystopian vision of Los Angeles in 1999. The premise of the film is built around an illegal electronic device called a SQUID, which is able to record events as they unfold directly from the wearer’s cerebral cortex. These memories are stored in device akin to a MiniDisc and can be re-experienced in full immersive VR by another person using a SQUID.


Abres Los Ojos (1997)

abres los ojos

Abres Los Ojos, or Open Your Eyes, was given the Hollywood treatment with Vanilla Sky.

Abres Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), a Spanish film directed and by co-written Alejandro Amenábar, definitely falls into the dystopian VR camp. The film, which was given the Hollywood treatment by Russell Crow in Vanilla Sky in 2001, involves cryogenics in addition to recorded and manipulated memories.  The film stars Eduardo Noriega, Penélope Cruz, Fele Martínez and Najwa Nimri. Penélope Cruz returned to star alongside Tom Cruz in Vanilla Sky.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999): The archetypal VR film.

The Matrix (1999): The archetypal VR film.

The Matrix, directed by Wachowski brothers and starring Keanu Reeves, remains the king of films based on the premise of virtual reality. Its vision is darker than the aforementioned episode of The Twilight Zone, with reality as all humans perceive it being a mere illusion created by sentient machines to subdue the human population while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as a source of energy. Reeves’ character, computer programmer Neo, discovers the truth and is drawn into a rebellion against the machines.


About The Author


The Editor is a technology journalist with 15 years experience of covering telecoms and media.

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