Colonizing Cyberspace – the 25 year old BBC documentary from the future

Music was my gateway into computing – but the potential application that always excited me most was Virtual Reality – VR.

Via William Gibson and Philip K Dick in my teenage years, through Jean Baudrillard in my early 20s – the immersive computer simulation of reality was just about the coolest thing that I could imagine at the time. It prompted me to the post-graduate study in interactive multimedia that would lead to my early adoption of the web (and the rest of my weird career).

Along the way a huge influence was this 1991 BBC Horizon documentary about early Virtual Reality; Colonizing Cyberspace. All the big names from the digital frontier are there; John Perry Barlow, Jaron Lanier, Howard Rheingold… I had it on VHS and must have watched it a dozen times.

I found myself thinking about it today and, sure enough, someone has uploaded it to YouTube.

The software and rendering seem a bit creaky now – with blocky, primary coloured worlds and polygonal avatars. But some things seem relatively current, like the prototype headsets and wearable gear – as though they were mothballed for a couple of decades; all progress suspended until we were ready for it. Which is pretty much what happened. Games and 3D caught up but, until the Oculus Rift Kickstarter came along in 2012, most had written the hardware off as a fad.

This documentary was nothing if not prescient.

“(VR will) be forgotten. It will be dismissed,” says Barlow just before the credits roll, “Then one day we’ll wake up in about 15 years and everything will be virtual.”

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