Revisiting The Lawnmower Man
Way back in 1992, a Cyber-Punk horror thriller made it to the box office. Starring Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Larry Angelo an obsessed computer scientist and Jeff Fahey as Jobe (The Lawnmower Man) as his unfortunate test subject. The film was quite popular at the time of it's released and gave everyone back then a glimpse of the possible applications and potential of Virtual Reality. The film is considered today as one of the classic films dedicated to the use of computer technology and the reality of the virtual world.
The plot of the film at first glance borders on the fantastic realm of cyber-fiction as it was more like a speculative attempt on a technology that was more of a working idea in development as it is more of a tangible thing today. In the film, Dr. Angelo was at first running experiments on primates to boost their mental capacities via the use of VR training and psychotropic drugs. The key is in the mixture of the drugs and the stimulation of the brain via the visual cortex induced by VR.
However, his research was being funded by a shadow organization simply known as The Shop. What they were aiming for and the program they had in place codenamed Project 5 and under the guise of a research company named Virtual Space Industries (VSI) was to boost Chimp intelligence via the drugs and VR in an aggressive environment. They then would implement the research further using human subjects to create super-soldiers for military applications much to the pacifistic Dr. Angelo's distaste.
The result was catastrophic as the test chimp Roscoe (Cybo-Man) unlocks his cell, shoots, and kills a guard and escapes the facility. With it's heightened intellect and aggressive behavior there was no telling what Roscoe would do next until he stumbles into the simple-minded child-like Jobe the town gardener and lawnmower man. The film despite being a thriller has it's own brand of humor as Jobe tries desperately to hide Cybo-Man from the Bad Guys who are after him. Not only does the chimp look funny with it's RoboCop like the outfit but acts his part very well especially during his conversation with his newfound friend Jobe. Sadly, the VSI security force catches up to them and Roscoe is terminated as he attempts to escape once more.
With these events, Dr. Angelo is forced to temporarily stop his experiments to stress his point of distaste for military applications but being the obsessed scientist as he is, he plans to continue his work though for peaceful means on a live human test subject. That's when he noticed the simple-minded handyman with an IQ of no more than 45 mowings the town’s lawns. In secret, he continued with Jobe as his test subject subjecting him to a slightly different mixture of drugs designed not to bring out aggression and a more educational VR training. However, the brain cortex stimulations where now being tested as well on an actual person and some side effects started to happen. Of course, Jobe morphed from simple maintenance man to good looking super smart maintenance man as the people around him noticed it. Worst, Dr. Angelo started using the facilities at VSI to further the experiment and The Shop secretly monitoring Jobe's progress switched the drugs being used with the original Project 5 batch used on the chimps.
The result was what made The Lawnmower Man the cyber-thriller that it was as the intellectually advanced power-hungry Jobe goes on a rampage with his newfound Telekinetic and Psychic powers attacking those who mistreated him and harming others. Jobe then attempts to transform himself into data-energy and escape into the internet via the VSI mainframe computer being used as well for the facilities VR Lab. Dr. Angelo tries to stop and save him and if not for the actions of Jobe's best friend Peter (the very young neighbor of Dr. Angelo) who tries to save him as well, Jobe would have killed Angelo as too. The film ends with the VSI facility being blown apart with Angelo and Peter escaping and Jobe horrifically escaping to the net in the nick of time.
Due to the film's popularity, a follow-up game was released starting from 1993 up to 1995 for multiple gaming platforms from the Super Nintendo, the PC, Sega-Mega Drive, and the Apple Mac. There isn't much to expect with the game by today's standards but at the time, it was a good side-scroller and interactive 3D combination game that did provide entertainment to the gamers of the time and fans of the film.
The film is actually a good watch for those who are really into computers and VR. Looking at it back from today does bring some interesting points with the speculations of VR in 1992. First is the wide-spread use of VR by the turn of the century which sort of misses it's marked by 16 years as VR became fully accepted as a popular medium for home and commercial use in 2016. The use of VR however as a training and teaching device is already currently a reality as evidenced by the myriad of educational VR apps available today. The hardware in the film like the motion platforms found in Dr. Angelo's basement as well as the massive Gyro-devices at the VSI facility have also sort of materialized in a far more applicable form like the VR platforms from Cat-Walk, Omni and others like them. The Flying Mouse used by Jobe to access the learning tools appears today as the VR motion controllers and pointers in popular use. There are many more aspects of the film which have translated to reality but it is still doubtful that one can have one's physical self deflated like a balloon by currently wearing a VR HMD.
As for the use of psychotropic drugs and visual-to-brain stimuli to enhance or control the human brain, your guess would be as good as mine. Dr. Angelo did remark to Jobe that whatever happened at VSI was classified...Top Secret. VR does enclose you in a totally alternate reality and every information you get comes from the app or program running it. The film does show flashes of light and visual stimulants that can either deliver hypnotic suggestions and alter one's perceptions and patterns of thought so in a way, the application is tangible. However, VR for public use is a far cry from Dr. Angelo's work as one doesn't inject oneself with some psychedelic drug concoction just to play a game in VR. Using a VR headset alone can currently space you out in many wonderful ways without the danger of being able to master Latin in a couple of hours or absorb so much information about human history in one sitting. It may give you some discomfort, disorientation, and maybe a little headache but not to the extent that you can hear other people’s thoughts or squeeze a tube of toothpaste by simply looking at it.
In closing, if you haven't seen the film, try to do so. It's a classic. The Lawnmower Man got a lot of things right and although missed by a really wide-berth on some, the possibilities (even the horrific ones) are always possible. For those however who have become fond of using VR, the film does give very good advice applicable today. If you have a partner in life, don't forget him or her just because of VR, as Falling, Flying and Floating may not just be enough after all.