The Truman Show and Virtual Reality

Dateline: 6/22/98

The new movie The Truman Show doesn't exactly have anything to do with VRML, but it raises a lot of interesting issues concerning reality versus virtual reality and the story telling in virtual spaces. How do characters in a real world interact with those in the virtual?

Please note this WARNING SPOILER, I will reveal plot and other relevant details of the movie so if you don't want to know how the movie ends or other details, leave and have a nice day.

The Premise

First let's set the scene. The premise of The Truman Show is that a child is born, an orphan, and for all of his 30 years of life is the "star" of a live 24 hours/day, television show. Everyone except him is aware of this show. He is isolated from the real world and live in a virtual world which is an island with a huge dome (the largest man-made structure on earth) in which the television show's producers control everything including the sunrise, sunset, and the weather. The moon up above actually houses the control rooms and is where the director of the show resides. Truman's real world is in fact a virtual world.

The Director of the show is in many ways playing God for Truman's world. In some respects the Director is the interface between the real world and the virtual world. Only at the end of the movie do the two directly interact and does Truman learn the true nature of his world.

Characters, Real or Virtual

All of the people in Truman's world are characters and actors, there for the production of the show and to make Truman's life as real as possible. When characters in the television show need to be replaced a major life change occurs for Truman. Characters to the audience are Truman's reality. His father, another actor, was starting to cause trouble on the set, when Truman was young so Truman was manipulated to believe he died in a boating accident. This also conveniently encouraged Truman's fear of water thus helping to keep him on the island, his real world, the television set. All of this was watched by the world wide audience always peeking in on this virtual world which was Truman's real world. Event's in Truman's life are episodes for the television audience. The "Losing his First Tooth" event of his life was an "episode" brought up later when reminiscing with the Director.

The real world watches Truman in his virtual world. They know that to Truman his world is real to him. A big selling point of the show is that Truman is genuine, he believes that the world he is in IS the real world. Much of the tension and compelling nature of the movie arise because of interactions at the interface. Actors and actresses start to feel compassion and/or fall in love with Truman and see the wrong nature of his situation. There is even a small "Free Truman" dissident movement in the real world, but it never makes much headway against the corporate colossus that is producing the show.

The world in which Truman lives is constructed much as the stage and sets of projects like VRML Dream, and Irish Space are constructed. They are virtual environments in which characters interact. For Irish Space the entire story is scripted and pre-calculated. With VRML Dream the story is scripted, however the performance was live and thus not totally pre-calculated. In the case of Truman, he travels through the town exercising his free will and the controlled elements of the town (everything) direct him to places and to perform various actions. A set of twins greets him every morning pushing him against a wall where a conveniently placed poster advertising a product is located. When Truman's wife talks to him she often exclaims about the wonders of a particular brand of lawn mower or coffee. In one scene of the movie we see the television show and watch an ad that says "'s the coffee Truman drinks every morning" (or something close to that). Given the constraints of producing the television show The Truman Show, all revenue is from product placement. It would not be unreasonable to have have advertising in virtual worlds and in fact this has been done for years. A particularly wonderful example is the blaxxun multi-user home world which has a Black & Decker billboard and more interestingly a Black & Decker Dustbuster bot that flies around and is always eager to tell you of it's features.

Space and Time

Time in Truman's world is generally demarked by night and day. These are in his world completely fabricated, but of course he doesn't know that. Furthermore the night and day of his world simply follows the real world's night and day.  Towards the end of the movie when Truman is in the process of discovering the true nature of his world. The Director summons the Sun early breaking the illusion of a "real" Sun and it's timely rise.

Time and space for stories must usually be compressed. In the case of Irish Space we don't actually travel from one planet to another we move from one scene to another in discreet jumps. It does not give a disconnected feeling however as the interruptions are short and we are used to that sort of thing in the movies and television. The interactive fiction engine being developed by Chris Crawford with his Erasmatron engine formalized the notion of jumps. Crawford isn't just another wild eyed kid, he is formerly of Atari in it's hay day, and founded and ran the first seven years of the Computer Game Developers Conference. The interactive fiction engine being developed by Crawford is a natural fit to a VRML story space system (any one listening out there!). Many of these concepts are being actively discussed in the vrml-lit list which has an unusually high signal-noise ratio and from which I have derived much in this article.

Real Reality and Virtual Reality

The ways in which the movie The Truman Show intermix real and virtual worlds is fascinating. As the movie has been release there has been a flurry of media coverage examining the role of the Internet and Internet cameras as they relate to The Truman Show. The progression of events has been from the original Internet camera, the Trojan Room Coffee Machine, to the JenniCam where a camera is on Jenni's apartment in Washington DC, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In certain respects Jenni's life is the closest there is to Truman, but of course she is in control, and quite shrewd turning the web camera thing into a real profit making business.

The mixture of real and virtual realities is moving from stories to reality. The development of a new form of literature based on interactions with virtual worlds is just beginning. As these worlds intermix automated bots and real human controlled avatars with story lines and virtual spaces the possibilities seem quite limitless. Virtual spaces where we control actions and where we are the Director or see things from the views of particular characters demands the development of new fictional languages. Sure sounds like fun stuff to me!

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