Virtual reality stands to let us convincingly experience things we would otherwise never experience—and perhaps, might never want to. As is often the case, the less revealed here about Rose Eveleth's story about VR, the erosion of digital content-free reality, and consent, the better. Read on. -the editor
CONTENT WARNING: this piece contains description of and discussion of sexual assault.
INT. OFFICE BUILDING – DAY – FLUORESCENT LIGHTS
**360 camera (CENTRAL POV) sits in the center of a generic office meeting room. Long table, phone in the middle, off the hook, dial tone audible, chairs scattered around. Fire alarm is going off somewhere.**
FORWARD POV: WOMAN, wearing bland office attire, crouching beneath desk, hugging knees. She’s listening intently, scared, trying to figure out what to do.
REVERSE POV: the door to the conference room, which is cracked slightly.
LEFT POV: empty conference room
RIGHT POV: windows looking out to the city, a great view
WOMAN shifts her weight, and leans to the left to try and look out the crack in the door. She waits for four counts, then decides to move. Puts her hands behind her head and shuffles, low to the ground, from the desk to the door. Sits on the ground, back to the door, ear turned to the crack to listen.
Fire alarm is going off in the distance but otherwise no sound but her breathing. Ten long seconds.
Woman closes eyes, takes deep breath. Reaches with right hand, slowly pulls the door open just enough to slip out of it and slide through.
CUT TO BLACK
“Hold on, one second.” A tall man in a grey hoodie and a beard pops out from behind a bright green screen.
“Sam, can you actually shift your body a little left, and put your weight on your left foot instead of your right? So you’re closer to the side of the desk.”
Sam shifts her weight over and scoots a bit to the left, then looks over at the man in the hoodie as if to say “like this?” and he nods. “Great, yeah, that’s better. Let’s take it from the top.” He steps back behind the screen and slides it into place so it seals seamlessly, disappearing.
Sam takes it from the top. She crouches, motionless beneath the desk. Counts to seven. Breathes shallowly, quietly, closes her eyes a bit. At seven, she pokes her head around the side of the desk. Pauses. Counts for four. Looks around. Takes a deep breath. Then scuttles, hands behind her head, protecting her neck, low as she can, to the door. Spins, puts her back to the door. Turns her head, ear aligned perfectly with the crack. Listens. Counts to ten again. Reaches over, pushes the door open as slowly as she possibly can. Just open enough so that her compact body can slide through. Slides through. Cut to black, end scene.
Sam stands on the other side of the door and reaches her arms up above her head, then folds at the waist, stretching out her legs. Crouching and scuttling all day was really starting to kill her hips and knees. She gives her spindly limbs one last shake, and then opens the door and walks back through the set towards the desk.
“Again?” She asks.
The green panel pops out once more, and the man in the hoodie pokes his head out. “Nope, I think we got it.”
Sam walks down the nearby hallway to the women’s dressing room, where she happily peels off the spandex bodysuit. Gently turning it right side out, she gives it a once over. A few of the little white balls are starting to come loose, especially on her butt where her heels kept resting and bumping during today’s shoot. She’ll have to take it over to the company seamstress tomorrow to get some replacements.
Sam had moved to LA to be an actress. But the only job she could get was at this weird startup nobody had heard of. The work wasn’t exactly acting. But it wasn’t… not acting either? She was a body. She would show up to the offices and get her assignments for the day. Then she would get into her suit, a black spandex bodysuit covered in little white dots, and walk out onto the motion capture stage—a repurposed warehouse painted all green, with hundreds of cameras surrounding an inner circle.
She didn’t get scripts as much as she got stage directions. Her job was to perform the motions and movements in whatever scenario she’d been assigned. Eventually, someone else’s face would be mapped onto hers. Usually a computer-generated one, an amalgamation of hundreds of people to create a face that felt vaguely familiar, but was also totally unrecognizable. On the rare occasion that she had actual lines, those were usually replaced by a voice simulation later anyway. In other words, nobody would know it was her.
INT. OFFICE BUILDING – DAY – FLUORESCENT LIGHTS
**The 360 camera (CENTRAL POV) sits in the center of a generic office building with cubicles. People are sitting at their desks working.**
FORWARD POV: WOMAN, wearing bland office attire, sitting at her desk working on a spreadsheet, wearing headphones. Photos of her dogs surround her desk.
REVERSE POV: several other working employees, typing on their computers. One is on the phone. Another is eating yogurt out of a cup.
LEFT POV: aisle between the desks, at the end is another aisle that leads to another row of cubicles. On the wall at this T-intersection is an inspirational poster.
RIGHT POV: aisle between the desks, at the end leading to the kitchenette.
MAN comes up from behind, puts hand on her shoulder. Woman moves her body away from him, awkwardly. Man leaves hand on her shoulder. Woman removes headphones. All other employees continue working as if nothing is happening.
Woman attempts to brush Man’s hand off her shoulder subtly. Man is visibly leering down Woman’s shirt.
Good morning Marissa
(doesn’t look up from her computer)
Good morning Ronald, can I help you with something?
Just wanted to say hi! How was your weekend?
Very eventful. (Winks very awkwardly, lowers his voice) I had a hot date.
Thank you. Of course, she holds no candle to you. (Starts to massage her shoulders.) You seem stressed?
(Drops her shoulders down away from her face.)
RONALD Doesn’t take his hands off, continues to massage.
MARISSA Looks around to other workers for help. A few people have noticed the interaction, but they avoid her eyes.
So what are you working on?
Preparing for the Sullivan meeting tomorrow.
Great, I’m sure you’ll do great. Wear that red dress you have. (Gives her shoulders a final squeeze) And try to relax! (Walks away.)
CUT TO BLACK
Today, VRtual is nearly unrecognizable from the handful of dudes she had originally signed up to work for. Sam is now one of hundreds of bodies who work there, and instead of one grungy warehouse stage they now have a whole complex in an old airplane hangar. VRtual has become the biggest proprietor of on demand VR experiences in the world.
VRtual supplies VR experiences to everyone: companies, governments, NGO’s, media outlets, even private wealthy clients. SThey do sexual harassment training, active shooter response training, lock down training, first responder training. There are experiences for parents who want to adopt kids, putting them through abuse and neglect before letting them walk away with a child; sensitivity experiences for those who want to overcome fears; empathy trainings to understand the lives of the homeless, or sex workers, or addicts, or refugees; mental health therapy training for those who want to get over past abuse, rape, assault.
As an body, Sam plays everything and everybody: secretaries and teenagers and moms and orphans and prisoners. The casting guys liked her because she was small. Small enough to be the body of an adult or a teenager. Small enough to be unthreatening, to fit in small spaces and to elicit pity from viewers.
Six months ago VRtual got a huge contract with the city of Chicago to create VR experiences for jurors to relive the cases they’re deciding on. Those are especially awful to act in, because you know they are real things that happened. For the generic training videos you can tell yourself it’s all pretend. Court shots pay more though, because you have to be really precise. Lawyers send over incredibly detailed notes on the exact posture and facial expression and order of movements. Sometimes they even send over reference videos to watch in advance. Jury shoots take several days, even weeks, and animators sometimes come back for reshoots because your body was an inch out of alignment, and nobody wants to be sued.
But bodies are never allowed to know anything about the case beyond their movements. In theory, this is about privacy, the idea being that there would be no way the bodies could connect their motions to any news coverage the case might get. But of course, some of the shots are so specific that it wouldn’t be that hard to track the cases down. Sam can never decide if this information blackout is better or worse. Either way, she never Googles the cases she plays in. She doesn’t want to know what the juries decide, doesn’t want to feel in some way responsible for someone getting off because she didn’t tremble visibly enough for the jury to convict.
It isn’t all terrible though. Rich people also hire the company to recreate their favorite memories from the past, so they can relive them. Those casting calls usually require more experience and specialization. Knowing how to fence, row, sail, dance the waltz, where to put the dessert fork.
These clients are also the pickiest, and there is a whole team of people at VRtual whose job it is to interview them about their memories and then research to recreate them. When someone can’t remember, for example, which precise street that first kiss happened on, the producers have to guesstimate some generic amalgamation of rooms and streets and hope that it is close enough to appease the client. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But often the complaints are just as vague as the original request. “That’s not what it looked like,” they say, but they can’t tell you specifically what it did look like, or what to change.
But most memory recreations are obvious ones. Sam has been in countless weddings, on endless first dates, been “first kissed” over and over. She’s lost track of how many times she’s held her baby for the first time, met her real parents for the first time, seen fireworks, played on the beach, graduated college.
At parties, when Sam would tell people what she did, it was always followed by a series of questions: have I seen you in anything? “You might have, but it would be hard to tell,” she would say. “I’m just the body. There’s another person’s face placed on top. I wouldn’t even recognize myself in one.”
What she didn’t tell people was that now, certain motions made her nervous. Crouching, she was always crouching. Hiding from someone, chained to a cell, hiding under a bed, tucked behind an office desk during a shooting. It would sneak up at odd times. Playing with a nephew, crouching behind a desk to surprise him, and suddenly a wave of nausea would hit her. Her body remembered, reacted, like it was riding a bike. Or like when you pick a swimming dog up out of the water and they keep moving their legs.
Sam wasn’t the only one who struggled though. Not long after VRtual went public, an expose came out in a big newspaper about a handful of workers who had panic attacks on set and were unceremoniously let go. The CEO responded to the article in a companywide email expressing smarmy, unconvincing condolences to anybody who felt stressed or unsupported at the company. “We take the health and safety of our workers very seriously here,” he said, while also cheekily acknowledging the irony that a company who makes so many workplace safety videos was now facing a workplace safety issue itself. In response to the article, VRtual hired consultants to evaluate the conditions and make recommendations. A few months later everybody got another email, a PDF of updates and changes the company would be making.
The attachment was brightly colored and designed to make you forget that there had ever been a problem at all. There would now be a counselor on call during work hours, but the smiling faces in the PDF made you wonder why they’d be necessary. Employee health benefits would now include mental health coverage, but none of the people on the page seemed to need it. Bodies like Sam would now receive their scripts 48 hours in advance, and be allowed to opt-out of shoots up to 24 hours before the work day began (limit 2 opt-outs per month). Anybody who felt overwhelmed during a shoot could now say a safe word and the shoot would stop. If their mouths were covered for some reason, they could drop to the ground and straighten all their limbs, and the director would have to end the shoot. The motion seemed absurd to Sam. She tried to imagine, in the midst of pretending to run from a school shooter, dropping to the ground and stiffening like a board. She never learned if anybody used this “safety motion” or not.
INT. Western themed bar. NIGHT.
**The 360 camera (CENTRAL POV) sits in the center of a dimly lit bar.**
FORWARD POV: first person perspective, woman, at a booth with her friends.
REVERSE POV: the door to leave the bar. Over the door is a lasso molded to spell out the words “Giddy Up.” Stool near the door where a bouncer might sit, but it’s always empty.
LEFT POV: bar, grouchy bartender, arms crossed, some men sitting at the bar. Several wearing plaid. A handful of cowboy hats. Drinking mostly hard liquor. Further back, two pool tables. Two other people playing darts.
RIGHT POV: booths full of people drinking and laughing. Jukebox past the booths, two people stand looking at it.
There’s a bar near the office that everybody goes to after work. It’s not a good bar. But the VRtual soundstage is on a giant lot full of retired and empty military hangers, far from anything else.
The bar is Western themed. Taxidermied animals on the wall, sheet-metal cowboy hats and lassoes that spell our words all over the place. There are pool tables in the back and a jukebox that only works part of the time. The floor is always sticky. They generally keep to the booths in the front, by the door. At the back it gets hot and smoky and full of guys she always wondered about. Nobody lives around here, and they don’t work at VRtual. Do they make the trip out here to come to this specific shitty bar? She avoids them as much as possible. But the bathroom is back there, where they all hang out.
It’s a Wednesday. They’re there for someone’s going away drinks. Sam pops up, and scoots out of the booth less than gracefully, pointing to the bathroom, she’ll be right back. Walking towards the back of the bar, she realizes that she’s a little drunker than she thought. The weird ossified lassos strung up all over the rafters look wigglier than usual.
WOMAN leaves booth, walks towards back of the bar. Camera follows.
At the back of the bar, to the left of the pool tables, there’s a small floating dividing wall in the shape of an L. The kind that doesn’t support anything at all. It doesn’t even connect to the ceiling fully. But it gives people waiting for the bathroom something to lean on, and keeps drunk people from wandering into the kitchen when they need the bathroom. There was only one toilet to be had here, behind a door painted to look like those swinging saloon doors. There was already someone in line. Sam stands behind him and pulls out her phone.
The man in front of her, a guy with a terrible mustache and a plaid shirt, makes some stale joke about peeing fast. The kind men always make in line for the bathroom. She smiles politely and thanks him, then looks back down and her phone. The key is to not make eye contact. The door swings open, he goes in. She glances at the clock on her phone, tempted to time him.
Then there is someone behind her. Then there is someone very close behind her. Far too close. She can smell him, sweat and whisky, radiating heat like a wall behind her. She spins around. He smiles. Tips his cowboy hat. Leans in even closer. His words go in one ear and out the other. They are a hello of some kind but she couldn’t tell you exactly what kind or what words he used. He smiles again, a big grin, his face half shaded by that stupid cowboy hat.
Sam puts a hand up, “no thank you.” Tries to sound steady and firm. The man cocks his head to the side and smiles again.
“I didn’t offer you anything,” he says, with an actual Southern accent that surprises her. Hi eyes are grey under the hat. His neck is thick and his teeth are very white and he has a course layer of greyish stubble around the mouth they live in.
“Oh,” she says, taking a step away from him. He follows. She puts her hand up again, but doesn’t know which words to use. “Please stay there,” she finally says, stepping back again. Her back is now against the back of the little wall. The man does not stay there.
He is wearing cowboy boots. They look too big for his feet, pointier and longer than they have to be. He puts his hand on the wall next to her face, trapping her in. “I asked you what your name was,” he says again. Maybe he doesn’t have a Southern accent? Maybe it was fake the first time? Sam blinks and tried to concentrate. Come on, she thinks to herself, you’ve been training for this for years.
The only thing that comes to mind is her first gig at VRtual. The director had chided her for not being more dramatic.
“The simulation won’t pick up anything subtle,” he said, having popped out from the green paneling. “That little frown you’re doing, pulling back just a tiny bit. The cameras can’t tell that your muscles are all tense. You have to make big movements, like you’re scaring away a bear. Don’t be so polite.” He popped back in, she tried again.
The man in the cowboy hat is still looking at her, smiling. He leans in again, speaking slowly like he might to a frightened farm animal. “I said… what’s your name sweetheart?”
Don’t be so polite, Sam thinks to herself, scare away a bear.
“I have a boyfriend.” The words come hurtling out, like there are no spaces between them. The man throws his head back and laughs. “That’s a funny name,” he says, leaning back in. “Come on now, what’s a little fun on a Friday night.”
Sam leans away, back against the door. “It’s Wednesday,” she says, trying to scoot her body towards the door to the bathroom so she can bang on it. Where the hell is that guy who said he would pee fast.
“Wednesday,” he tips his hat at her, “it’s nice to meet you. My name is Clay.”
Sam laughs, then covers her mouth to try and pretend she hadn’t. The man smiles genuinely that time, pleased that he made her laugh. The lines around his eyes and mouth are almost endearing. The jukebox starts playing the main theme song from The Good The Bad and The Ugly, one of the songs that would play on rotation if nobody fed the machine. Sam is suddenly very aware of her heart pounding up in her throat. It is hot and smelly back here and she really does have to pee.
MAN puts hand on WOMAN’s hip.
WOMAN looks down. Tries to push hand off.
MAN puts hand back on hip.
Wait. This isn’t a work scene. She can do whatever she wants. She doesn’t have to stand here wide eyed and let the bear win. She shakes her head.
Don’t be so polite. Scare away the bear. Clay is smiling at her still, his thumb now fiddling with the waistband of her jeans. He doesn’t look like a bear. He lowers his voice to a soothing, soft murmur.
Well, Wednesday, I’m very glad to have met you here.
I have a boyfriend.
No you don’t.
How many times had she played this scenario. She couldn’t even count them. How many times had she rolled her eyes at the hapless women she embodied. How stupid were they, she thought. Just kick him in the balls and run! Just say no, scream and make a fuss, call 911 on your phone, tell him to go fuck himself. This wasn’t hard, it was the simplest thing in the world, really.
But the man across from her in the bar wasn’t wearing a suit covered in dots. When she played this out at work it wasn’t so dark and smelly. She couldn’t see how strong her counterpart was, see the muscles that connected his neck to his shoulders. He didn’t have that slightly off, unpredictable look in his eye. She hadn’t had anything to drink. She didn’t have to pee.
Come on Wednesday, I’m not so bad right? We’re just having some fun. Don’t you like fun?
Aw I’m sure that’s not true. Everybody likes fun. Even girls like you. You just don’t realize it yet.
The safe word, what was the safe word, from the PDF. Hippopotamus. She could drop to the ground, stiffen all her legs. The safety motion. The director would have to call cut. Clay the cowboy is looking at her with those gray eyes. Her table full of friends seems 100,000 miles away. The song from The Good The Bad and The Ugly comes on again. Or it was still playing. How long had she been here? Why couldn’t she move her legs? She really, really has to pee.
Do you think two people can fit into that bathroom, Wednesday?
My name’s not Wednesday.
No? Well then what is it?
I’m not going to tell you.
Because I don’t trust you.
Scare away the bear, Sam.
Why not? I’m a real gentleman. (He tips his hat again.)
I don’t know you. I just want to use the bathroom. Leave me alone please.
Scare away the bear. Big motions. Do something. Do anything.
Well I’m just waiting for the bathroom, same as you. No harm in that right? Can’t a guy wait in line for the bathroom?
I guess but…
The bathroom door starts to jiggle. Both MAN and WOMAN turn to look at it. MAN smiles.
CUT TO BLACK