What’s crazier than the insane political machinations of House of Cards being outdone by the very real politics of 2017? How about the show taking Season 5 viewers into yet another layer deeper into the surreal by introducing virtual reality into the very plot of the show.
Here’s your Spoiler Alert warning. If you haven’t already binge-watched the latest season of House of Cards, you’ve been warned.
In episode 5, Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) political rival, the younger, buffer ex-soldier Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) tries a friend’s VR app that’s designed to help veterans deal with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Using the very real Samsung Gear VR, we see Conway holding an imaginary rifle as he looks through a gun scope while walking through enemy territory in VR.
Just a few seconds later, the immersive battle scene gets a little too real for Conway and he’s forced to snatch the headset off, his face red with anxiety as the app’s developer and Conway’s wife look on at the next would-be U.S. president.
It’s a clever use of the latest technology (I’ve used such an interactive glove on higher-end VR systems) on a show that has a tradition of integrating gaming and mobile tech into the most personal moments of the series.
From Underwood’s Call of Duty and Monument Valley gaming addictions in previous seasons to the use inextricable role that texting plays in nearly every episode, House of Cards is a tale of dusty, old school power plays that are made vibrant by the intelligent way in which tech quietly frames each episode in the background.
But with Conway’s decision to strap on the Samsung Gear VR headset, the subtext appears to be that VR that is, fake reality is the weak man’s salve. A virtual scarecrow in the form of a Call of Duty-like VR app provoking fear in the heart of the lesser man who slinks in the potent shadow of Underwood, who sticks to traditional, flat screen-based games.
It’s a deft pop culture flourish that dovetails perfectly with the view of some mainstream consumers who view the open-mouthed wonder and toddler-like gesturing by VR headset wearers as, well, ridiculous. And it’s tempting to buy into that narrative. But the problem is, despite the perfect totem of fragile, ego-driven ambition disconnected from hard reality that VR represents for Conway’s character, the fact is that VR really is serving as a powerful therapy tool for the traumatized, and the show’s producer, Spacey, is actually a huge fan of VR.
“I am a believer [in VR]. And I think it’s going to be revolutionary for a whole lot of reasons,” said Spacey during an interview at Davos last year.
“Let’s just think about sports. Imagine that you can buy a ticket to be on the sidelines of a live football match while it’s happening Or a concert… Paul McCartney did a VR thing last year. Beck did one. You’re so close to the stage you literally feel you’re there.”
But that was just Spacey getting warmed up. He’s not just intrigued by VR, he’s passionate about it.
“I think [VR] will end up being the natural home for capturing the living theater,” said Spacey. “Because finally we can take a three dimensional experience and retain it as a three dimensional experience. I think it will work in film But I also think of [VR] in terms of education Imagine if we can bring the best teachers in the world into that classroom. And a student can put on a headset and suddenly be at the bottom of the ocean studying science. Or be in the Globe theater watching actors rehearsing in the 16th century. Or be in the Sydney Opera House while a concert is happening.”
In terms of VR therapy as depicted in Spacey’s series, at the University of Southern California, researchers are harnessing the immersive power of VR through an app called Bravemind, which is designed to use virtual combat exposure to “assess and treat” PTSD. But Bravemind is just one of many VR apps being used for therapy and social good initiatives that promote empathy for people and situations around the planet.
So yes, good one, House of Cards, you helped drive another nail into the casket of the superficial VR experiences that deserve all the ridicule they receive.
But in the process, the TV parable of too-close-to-reality-for-comfort political bloodsport has also cemented VR in the minds of millions more viewers who may now wonder, “Hey, I wonder if that VR stuff they showed really works. Maybe it’s time to give it a try.”