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‘VR.5' Steps Into Critical Real World : Virtual-Reality Pros Weigh In on Fox’s Cyber-Noir Series

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a new media conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center last week, a session on the emerging field of virtual reality veered off course when one of the panelists mentioned that psychiatrists are exploring virtual reality to treat subjects.

“I have a question,” interjected another panelist, Gregory Panos, president of Sophistech Research in Beverly Hills and publisher of the “Virtual Reality Sourcebook.” “Are any of these psychiatrists doing anything to deal with the brain damage caused by people in the entertainment industry who are putting together these virtual-reality movies and TV shows that we’re forced to consume?”

Specifically, Panos was referring to “VR.5,” a cyber-noir TV series that premiered two weeks ago on Fox, teaming with “The X-Files” to produce the highest Friday ratings in Fox’s history. The surreal sci-fi show stars Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, a shy telephone line worker who discovers that, using her home computer and a modem, she can burst into people’s subconscious minds and pull them into a psychedelic landscape inside her computer.

In the premiere, Singer’s character used this newfound cyber-optic skill to uncover the serial-killer history of a co-worker. The premiere was greeted enthusiastically by TV critics, but it drew exasperating sighs from the real virtual-reality crowd at the conference, all of whom had watched it eagerly.

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“You could get much richer story lines and plot devices out of real VR technology and how it will enhance, affect and change what it means to be human,” said the virtual-reality session moderator, Dave Blackburn, president of Virtual Ventures in Manhattan Beach. “Unfortunately, we have to get VR ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ ”

“VR.5" co-executive producer Thania St. John, one of five credited creators, said the serial-murder angle was featured at the urging of Fox, to create a sense of early danger to hook viewers. Future episodes will be more psychological in nature, she promised.

“Our business is pretend,” said St. John, who wrote the premiere episode for executive producer John Sacret Young, co-creator of “China Beach.” “I admire these people because I do know what they’re doing. They’re scientists, cutting-edge scientists. That’s not what we do. We’re here to entertain people, and we respond to trends in a totally different way than they do.”

Hollywood has shown verifiable interest in virtual reality in such upcoming projects as “Virtuosity,” starring Denzel Washington. It figured prominently in Michael Crichton’s thriller “Disclosure,” and before that in the horror film “The Lawnmower Man.”

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In some ways, the virtual-reality industry has not responded all that differently to its own technology than Hollywood has, by focusing primarily on entertainment and gaming applications because that’s where the money is.

Virtual reality uses a sophisticated arcana of technology to enable individuals to enter and interact with a computer-generated environment. At Pasadena’s “digital theme park,” Virtual World, for example, players can battle each other from the interactive cockpit of their three-story walking tanks or race in hovering vehicles through the mining canals of Mars.

But the virtual-reality industry also shares a common, fundamental vision to stretch the boundaries of how people think, act and interact. These “immersive experiences” can be used for research, design, education and even healing. GreyStone Technology Inc. in San Diego is working with Steven Spielberg’s Starbright Pediatric Network to install a virtual-reality ride on the back of a winged dinosaur as a method of pain distraction for severely ill children at the UCLA Medical Center.

“My feeling about ‘VR.5' is that--like most of what’s going on in Hollywood--they’ve learned a little bit about virtual reality,” Panos said. “So whatever they understand it to be, they’re using that as a dramatic vehicle to tell stories that are traditionally the kinds of stories they’ve been telling forever. They haven’t gleaned any spiritual insights from the people who are driving this industry and building the technologies.”

That’s where the makers of “VR.5" strongly disagree. They visited exhibits, interviewed people in the industry and poured over literature. They distinguished between the philosophers and the technocrats, and they aligned themselves with the former, those who see virtual reality as a new way to plumb humanity.

Howard Rheingold’s seminal book “Virtual Reality” was a big source of inspiration.

“It’s about psychic plunging, discovering the essence of what it is to be a human being,” said co-producer Geoffrey Hemwall, another of the show’s five creators. "(Rheingold) believes virtual reality is the new discovering the ancient. He talks about the collision of mythology and dreams with what technology at its very best in the future will do by enabling us to explore those primordial places.”

When Sydney Bloom pulls somebody into VR.5--a fictional psychic plane of virtual reality created for the show--the two minds meet and physically act out their hidden thoughts. For the stylized series, budgeted high at $1.6 million to $1.8 million per episode, those scenes are stripped of color and then re-colorized by computer to create eerie, Salvador Dali-like images and effects.

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In Friday’s episode, Sydney uses VR.5 to get into the mind of an assassin. Later in the season, higher planes of VR are explored; when one reaches VR.10, he or she essentially becomes God.

“We’re just using virtual reality as a tool to tap into the human subconscious,” said writer and co-creator Jeannine Renshaw. “In a way, this is an old-fashioned storyteller’s device to get into a contemporary, real discovery of who we are today.”

On the surface, the “VR.5" team seems unlikely. TV director Michael Katleman and his brother, Adam Cherry, began meeting in restaurants across the Westside two years ago with Renshaw, an actress, and Hemwall, the director of development for Young’s production company. They were all tired of working on other people’s projects, so they decided to create their own TV show. None had computer expertise beyond basic word processing.

At first, Sydney was simply going to be a female antihero who ran a grunge, cyber-punk bar in Seattle. As a sidelight, the bar had a virtual-reality game. But the thought of virtual reality kept haunting the group, who called themselves the Committee. When the words virtual reality were mentioned during a Fox pitch meeting, the executives’ ears perked up, and Hemwall raced to a pay phone afterward to let his writing partners know they had their peg.

As first conceived, Sydney was going to use VR.5 for her own personal reasons--such as helping an abused child she saw at the diner. When Fox wanted a regular antagonist, the writers created a mysterious, nefarious organization and named it after themselves: the Committee.

“What is the Committee--good, bad, mixed? We’re not sure yet,” Young said. “It’s an onion. We’re peeling back the layers, and we’re not sure what’s inside yet. It fits, in a way, with our sense of government and monolith and communications revolution.”

There were obstacles once production began in September--a lack of clear direction, early turnover in the writing staff. There was even talk of scrapping the second episode, which aired last Friday and dropped 20% in ratings from the premiere.

By the fifth episode, Young realized the show needed a narrative thread. So he and St. John concocted a back-story for Sydney, involving the death of her father and twin sister, then shot new scenes and inserted them into the pilot and other early episodes. Now, the season has an arc, and questions will be raised as to the true fate of her family.

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The virtual-reality industry may believe that the “VR.5" producers are taking the technology and twisting it for their own purpose, Katleman said, “but we are giving them a tremendous amount of credit because they are the ones who inspired us to do this. They are the ones who intrigued us all. We wanted to take the show in a direction where people who put on those virtual-reality headsets think they’re going. We wanted to make the show about where the mind wants to go, not about what is actually out there now.”

* “VR.5" airs at 8 p.m. Fridays on Fox (Channels 11 and 6).


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