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VR Cultural Icons: Max Headroom

Max Headroom was one of the stars of VR for the UK in the mid 1980s. It may come as a surprise then, to know there was not actually any VR involved.

Created by the talents of actor Matt Frewer, for a channel 4 music video programme entitled "The Max Headroom Show", the intent was to create a futuristic artificial intelligence inside a computer that was providing irrelevent commentary to the music videos. Ahead of its time by decades, it would have been cutting edge even 20 years later. AS it is, Max Headroom is a character still payed homage to, even in 2008 productions.

Despite its appearance, the computer technology of the 80s was nowhere near powerful enough to render a CGI head, much less animate it, and lip-sync the mouth. So, this VR was actually latex and foam rubber. Carefully created and polished in painstaking detail before a taping, Matt wore this abstracted head, and a very rigid business suit made of pure fibreglass. The background was a constantly moving 3D cuboid structure made out of illusionary squares formed with parallel lines of vivid, clashing colours. It too was not computer generated at least in the beginning, but rather a hand drawn animation intended to look computer generated. It was only in the later years, with the power of a Commodore Amiga, that these lines could be computer drawn. Nothing else was.

Lastly, to finish things off, Matt's voice was electronically sampled, distorted, and frequent stuttering in line with facial ticks and loops of animation were added. This added to the computer generated, malfunctioning hardware feel.

The music show ran for two years, from 1985 to 1986, a total of 13 episodes aired, then vanished. It was replaced with a single cyberpunk movie, "Max Headroom: 20 minutes into the future". This was a typical cyberpunk dystopia, with the world basically run by megacorporations, of which television corporations dominated.

Edison Carter, a reporter for Channel 5 news (long before British Channel 5 existed) stumbled onto a plot to create 'blipverts', adverts so swift, using powerful subliminal messaging that they could not be avoided. The only downside? They make obese people explode when they view them. Carter is hounded by the corporation behind the blipverts, to keep the story silent. Carter cracks his head open on a bar, trying to get away. That bar reads: 'Max. Headroom: 1.6m'.

In a coma from the impact, Carter's memories were uploaded to a computer, and reconstructed into a personality as best as possible. That personality grew from Carter's strongest memory - his last. Taking the name Max Headroom, the new AI was ever so slightly unhinged, spewing out a constant stream of stand-up comedy with a techno-based, very stuttery speech, wisecracks, and malapropisms galore.

Max escaped the lab that spawned him, thanks to a chance hack attempt. He went on to take down the corporation showing blipverts, purely by being so funny, that billions tuned into the timny two-person TV station that had pinched him, to watch this constant stream without a single advert, cutting revenue from the major corporations for an extended period of time.

Since then, Max featured in Coca-cola adverts, as an image people would recognise, and went global from there.

He starred in television commercials for Radio Rentals, then an interview show on the US-based Cinemax cable TV channel, called "The Original Max Talking Headroom Show".


Known homage includes, but is not limited to:

* The Sitcom Family Matters built a nuclear device which was controlled by an A.I. that looked & stuttered just like Max, only with a different face.

* In 1988, Mexico created a Max Headroom style character in the TV programme "Estrellas de los 80's".

* The blockbuster 'Back to the Future' featured Max Headroom style waiters as the only serving staff in its second movie, from the scene in the diner styled with the best elements from the '80s.

* The German internet service provider T-Online a Max Headroom like character called "Robert T-Online" in a 2000 advertising campaign.[1]

* The movie "Batman & Robin" had an AI personality based on the head of Alfred, Bruce Wayne's butler, who moved in jerky motions and stuttered exactly the same way as Max.

* In the animated children's series "Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?" The Chief is depicted as a sentient AI head, constantly cracking irrelevent jokes, just the same as Max.

* The US based PBS network used a sentient, jerky AI head character immaginatively titled Fax Headfull, in the made for children maths program Square One.

* The Sci-Fi show Farscape features an episode where the main character, John Crichton, is recreated as a video game character who parodies Max Headroom throughout.

* Band Sum 41 have a song entitled "Second Chance For Max Headroom" on their debut "Half Hour of Power" album.
* The TV series Sledge Hammer! parodied Max Headroom in one episode.

* Minor US show "Eerie, Indiana" had a copy of Max as a head in an ATM.

* The movie "Spaceballs" had a TV reporter both at the start, and near the end of the film, providing backstory and plot twists who was very similar to Max Headroom in appearance and manner.

* First Person Shooters System Shock and System Shock 2 both feature as the big bad enemy, the AI SHODAN, which is never seen, but who uses an electronically sampled, stuttering, jumpy speech pattern exactly the same as Max Headroom's.

* In the 2007 Christmas Special of Doctor Who Voyage of the Damned, the owner of the company running the Cruise was called Max Capricorn, and at times when projected as a hologram began stuttering. The British Broadcasting Corporation have directly stated Max Headroom was the inspiration.

Further Reading

Max Headroom pirating incident

Frewer Eyes More Headroom?

The Max Headroom chronicles H-H-H-Home Page

Channel 4 resurrects Max Headroom

Staff Comments


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