Put aside Ready Player One for a second, I’ve got something else to add to the VR Recommended Reading/Watching list: Robot & Frank. This short, sweet little movie from 2012, directed by Jake Schreier, doesn’t depict a dystopian future in which VR ruins our lives but instead a more plausible vision of years not too far from now in which A.I.-controlled domestic robots assist the elderly with every day care.
The movie is largely unconcerned with the prospect of VR, but there are a fleeting few seconds in which it does address the topic. Frank, an aging burglar, is surveying a house belonging to Jake, a young, successful developer that has embraced the technologies of the near-future. Jake is essentially the living embodiment of the so-called millennial, grown up and living in a brave new world. Through a pair of binoculars, Frank finds him sitting alone in a room with what’s presumably a VR or AR headset on, drumming away. Our protagonist disapprovingly chuckles and proclaims “Unbelievable!” as Jake quickly tucks the device away when a girl walks into the room, suggesting some form of embarrassment.
I first saw Robot & Frank around the time I started writing about VR, and this is a scene that has stayed with me as long as I’ve been reporting on it. That’s not because I necessarily agree with Schreier’s supposed skepticism about the technology, but instead because I take it as a warning. It reminds me that, no matter how incredible a virtual experience can be, you should never fully replace it with the real thing if you’re able. You shouldn’t let an immersive diving reality rob you of actually going diving at least once in your lifetime, or consider standing on top of the virtual Mount Everest to be a comparable achievement to getting there with your own two feet.
Recently I’ve been finding myself thinking about this a lot, and it comes from a conflict that relates directly back to Robot & Frank. Rock Band VR is nearly here and Rift owners are about to become Jake, sitting in that room pretending to be something they’re not.
I played Harmonix’s imminent rock god simulator for the third time last week and, as I wrote about, this was the time it finally clicked with me. Standing in front of hundreds of screaming fans and strumming along to Everlong like I was Dave Grohl himself was quite simply one of the most empowering experiences I’ve had in VR to date. It’s that rare reality in which you’re not restricted by the limits of the technology; you don’t need to worry about locomotion or haptic feedback, you have everything you need right there in your hands.
But maybe Rock Band VR feels a little too good?
Hear me out before you hit the comments with a vengeance. Based on what I’ve played, Harmonix has fully achieved its vision with this iteration of the franchise, perhaps more so than any other VR developer to date. They turn you into someone else and give you an experience that just a handful of people will ever really have in their lifetime, and it’s done in a way that feels real.
Once you take the headset off, though, it means nothing.
True, Rock Band VR is going to have modes that will challenge you and give you a sense of progression as you play through setlists with your fictional band, but all of that is in service of a core thrill. It allows you to be a rock star without the hours of dedication and practice needed to develop the skills or even the worthiness to actually become a rock star. To be frank, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty and hollow for enjoying myself so much.
As I was playing, I was reminded of that scene from Robot & Frank and I realized this was the first time I was coming up against that warning that I’d thought about so often these past few years.
But, no matter my reservations about truly embracing VR imitation, I refuse to accept that Rock Band VR is the first step toward us becoming the generation of disconnected, corporation-championing youths that Schreier depicts in his film. No one should be shamed for seeking out as immersive and convincing an entertainment medium as this.
I personally see Rock Band VR as the stepping stone to something bigger, anyway. I envision a day when Harmonix’s series or something similar could actually be a tool for acts that could have band practice sessions from around the world without having to shift expensive gear around. I see one of VR and AR’s biggest services being virtual music lessons that teach you how to play much better than any internet page or video ever could.
And if those apps also let anyone have fun pretending to be the biggest star on the planet or, more importantly, let people with disabilities do the same then, you know what? That’s wonderful.
So, no, I’m not telling you not to play Rock Band VR and I’m certainly not telling you to feel bad about playing it, either. In fact I’m pretty sure early next week we’ll absolutely be recommending you pick up a copy for yourself and I’ll be digging through my cupboard to find my old guitar. But I do think now is as good as time as ever to share that warning and hopefully instill some of that precaution. As VR becomes more immersive and more convincing than ever it’s increasingly important that we don’t let skeptic’s views turn true that it will consume us and rob us of the big wide world around us.
Because, at the end of the day, I want to show Schreier that his vision of the future was wrong. I want us to prove that VR is going to make us better humans because it really does, more than anything else.