One of the more novel shows of this summer has been NBC’s “Reverie,” which grapples with the potentials and risks of realistic virtual reality.
The show stars Sarah Sashi (Person of Interest) as Mara Kint, a former negotiator for the police who left after she failed to prevent her brother-in-law from killing his wife and daughter. At the start of the series, she is teaching a college course on Interpersonal Dynamics, which is basically a hybrid of theater and improv — and self-medicating her grief with drugs and alcohol.
After wrapping up class one day, her former boss, retired police chief Charlie Ventana, played by Dennis Haysbert (Mr. Allstate himself), drops in and asks her to help out at Onira Tech, a company which has developed a hyper-realistic virtual reality program, Reverie, which recreates past memories of places and people based on personal experience and information gathered from social media, and allows users to freely explore that while shutting off their consciousness from the virtual world. Some of Reverie’s users have lost touch with the real world altogether, so Mara’s job is to talk them into leaving the virtual world by entering their Reverie simulation. Essentially, Mara has to jack into the Matrix in order to get them out.
The main method of she goes by this is through empathy, which Mara describes in the pilot episode as “the most important tool.”
“We learn empathy by observing and we’ve stopped doing that,” she says as she gestures towards a cluster of young adults staring at their smart phones. “I mean look, nobody’s even having an actual conversation.”
Empathy is the recurring theme throughout season one of Reverie, a show that capitalizes on the anxiety surrounding human civilization’s near-constant dependence on computer technology.
The basic structure of the show is essentially a detective story wrapped in a science-fiction package. The viewer is introduced to the Reverie user of the week, Mara and company interview their friends and witnesses to figure out why the person is stuck in the virtual world, and Mara and her allies use this information to get the individuals out.
Nine times out of ten, the person choosing to stay in Reverie is haunted by something in the real world, something or someone that person has lost or lacks, and Reverie is fulfilling those desires. In one case, a former ballet dancer who has become paraplegic has her own personal theater and the use of her virtual legs.
The idea of people being stuck in virtual worlds has been explored before in films like The Matrix. While the virtual reality slaves in The Matrix were never given a choice, Reverie users voluntarily opt into it.
Most of the time, at least.
Reverie raises ethical questions about the potential uses and misuses of VR. Viewers are introduced to the concept of the Dark Reverie, Reverie programs used to commit illicit or illegal activities, such as practicing for a real-world heist or interrogating a Syrian refugee youth against his will, just to name a couple examples.
Where Reverie does break new ground is by introducing the concept of de-realization, the manifestation of past trauma from the user’s subconscious mind in the simulation, and outside of it as well.
Entering other people’s Reverie experience affects Mara herself, as well, with hallucinations of her niece. She virtually visits the place where her death occurred, only to find herself in the middle of the road and nearly run over by a vehicle. If VR becomes this realistic, then we could end up seeing people running in a park thinking they’re jumping on Super Mario Bros. Turtles. Oh, wait, that’s already happening.