Historical perspective

The other day I used LSD as a way to describe the differing philosophies behind Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. Actually, this part of a longer discussion.

Earlier this week, my friend Carl Rosendahl described his interesting perspective on a fundamental difference between movies and television. By the 1950s, motion pictures were completely dominating popular culture. Going to the flix would set you back only a nickel, and people were going pretty much every day.

Then TV came along, and the number of movies seen per year by the average American plummeted drastically. With people staying at home for their everyday viewing, movies had to become bigger and more expensive to remain relevant, as they transformed from an everyday experience to a once a week treat.

A key difference between the two media, Carl pointed out, is that movies are about visiting another world, whereas TV contains a strong element of the here and now. Sports, TV news, talk shows, talent shows, and now reality TV, these are all windows into the actual world as it is happening right now (although not always very good windows).

And that lines up nicely with the VR versus AR dichotomy. People like being transported to another world. But they also like being connected to other people. Providing a shared mass focus on the real world — whether we are watching the first human walking on the moon or a beloved president getting shot — is a very effective way to accomplish that.

To a first approximation, the novel or theatrical play, which presents a window into a make-believe world, is an obvious precursor to the movies, and therefore to the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” ethos of Virtual Reality, as opposed, say, to the newspaper or magazine. But the divide is not always to simple.

After all, novels and plays can also be vehicles for agit-prop, which tilts things more toward the “Be here now” philosophy of Augmented Reality. For example, it could be argued that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, ostensibly a fictional narrative in novel form, had a decisive impact on the political events of its day.

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