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The Truman Show

The Truman Show arrived in 1998, as a send-up of reality TV shows. At least, that was the initial assessment. However, like all great works, it has several deep meanings and can be construed in a number of ways. What makes this show unique, is that in order to create reality TV it had to go further than any reality TV show of the time.

It had to have the subject enclosed in a bubble, a synthetic world, wherein every and any aspect of his life could be precisely controlled. Where even the weather, the sun, the moon, the colour of the sky itself were all under the show director's control. In short, for all intents and purposes, Truman lived in a virtual world.

The plot is actually quite simple, just as simple as it is evil.

Truman was the first baby adopted by a corporation. The studio, his studio, was under construction before he was even born. His mother gave birth to him inside it and he has never seen anything outside it. Ever.

At the time the film starts from, Truman is in his thirties, and working as an insurance salesman in the small town of Seahaven, the same town he has lived in all his life. His father drowned in a boating accident right in front of his son (deliberately staged so that young Truman would be terrified of water). This worked out perfectly, for Seahaven the town, sits on Seahaven island, completely surrounded by water.

Seahaven Island. Note the way the sky literally curves.

This ruse was necessary for the young Truman proved to be an adventurous lad, forever exploring and desiring to seek further afield. This was a big problem for the studio as the virtual reality of Seahaven was part physical.

As the image above shows, the island and the small piece of landmass it is connected to, are artificial constructs, enclosed completely in a hemispherical projection system, that at it's height is over 200 floors tall. The outside of the dome being used for offices, control rooms, living quarters and prop storage for the 170,000 actors and support personnel used in the operation.

Don't forget that in the film's premise this was a reality TV show. It broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so product placement in-show paid for all of that, and then some. For Truman it must have been a living hell, feeling like his life was one big commercial. He was the only one not in on the system, completely unaware that the world he lived in was fantasy. To him, it was the only reality he had ever known, and was the real world. Everyone else, well, they were shadow-people, reality enforcers for this life Truman was to live. His mother was not even his real mother, just an actress playing a roll. His father never really drowned, he was picked up, under the ocean surface.

Why a hemisphere?

The use of a hemisphere as the containing structure seems odd at first, unless you understand how VR environmental systems work. The island of Seahaven, the mainland section, the connecting bridges, buildings, cars, even the water, those were all physical objects, parts of the world that could be interacted with directly. High, high above, masked from view, most likely by synchronised display screens below them, pointing down, were weather control systems such as sprinklers, wind tunnel outlets, heat exchangers and the like. However, for the most part, all the weather, the sky itself and the clouds, all of that would have had to be purely virtual. Like a nested simulation, one inside the other, the sky of the virtual world was another virtual world, a giant wraparound screen that extended up and over as well as along the sides.

In many VR systems of today, including a great many modern videogames, the display method is not a box but a curving display surface. Physically a half-hemisphere, hemisphere or complete sphere are often used. At first glance this seems odd given the inherent complexities of mapping images correctly onto a curve. However, for the viewer, this is offset both by the immediate, and realistic impression of depth - no eye-strain from focussing at false distances - and because curved displays offer a wider field of view than any flat display ever could show. There is also the problem of corners to deal with in a flat system. Towards the corner the display becomes mangled, and with practice - considerably less than 30 years - it becomes obvious that something is wrong in that point in the sky. This is also why games tend to use skydomes rather than skyboxes. After a while, the box becomes obvious. With a dome, this effect never occurs, as there are no corners, and no distortion effects as you move up the sky, any more than there are moving from side to side.

Computationally they are much more of a challenge, but this system is the only one that makes sense for a VR intended to fool it's inhabitant(s) into thinking it is a natural world, unless you recreate the heavens themselves.

Full Time Reality TV

On-screen 24 hours a day. Even sunrise is not presentable without knowning what he is doing.

Truman is as stated before, in this virtual reality for the purpose of a reality TV show. In order for this to happen effectively, and to justify the expense, there are cameras everywhere, and a fairly sophisticated sensor net exists between them. Cameras in each room of every building on the island, cameras behind the medicine cabinet of Truman's house. Cameras in almost every drawer or cupboard of Truman's home, office, in his car, sewn into his clothing. Sky-cams peering down from on high, not to mention cameras in the clothing of almost everyone else on the island, all just in case they need to be seen talking to Truman.

The cameras never leave him, panning from one to another to another as necessary and seamlessly. What is likely happening, and when we see the control room does seem to be actually happening, is that the sensor network is alive and active, activating and deactivating cameras within a radius of Truman, that actually show either his face, or his body outline - or in the case of him sleeping, the outside of the covers. These images are then sent to a bank of monitors in the control room, where the operators and the director pick the camera positions they are going to use on a moment to moment basis.

A plausible control room to control a complex, multi-user VR

Even with all the automation, it does not seem plausible to be able to get away from this degree of necessary sentient control. Most VR's wouldn't need this, as most would not be focussing on broadcasting the antics of a single resident world-wide to an outside world. One which is at least presumed to not be a simulation itself.

However, even without that aspect, the weather control system, monitoring to ensure NPCs/actors that clash aren't placed near one another, essentially co-ordinating needs-based AI and world physics takes some considerable degree of control. If you are striving for a certain tone in your VR, a certain specific feeling to be given off for any user at any given time, then yes, a control room such as the one shown in the film is not beyond the realm of necessity, especially as our VRs become more complex and immersive. Not to mention more massively multi-user.

Idealised World

An Idyllic World

The world of Seahaven is an idealised one, the kind of romanticised idyllic life the past never was, but we all seem to desire to remember it as. A time when everyone was pleasant to one another, when there was no rush and bustle, the sun shone all day every day and it only rained at night. When no hurricanes ever came and the weather never got too bad. A time when every building was picturesque, and the only dramas for most people, were minor.

This is the world Seahaven portrays, and the one Truman has to live in. He's the only one with constant drama surrounding him as his life limps from one crisis to the next, with no secrets possible whatsoever. Every agonising moment, every deception laid bare for all to see.

Ignoring the reality television aspect, and Truman's own constant drama, how many would kill to live in a world like this? It is very much the pulpit sought by many, a world shaped entirely to user desire, and complete unto itself. A simulated universe where it is all too easy to believe it is the only one, with no contact outside. A safe haven for any philosophy to grow. It is what VR is striving to achieve, and Truman show lays it all out bare for all to see.

Only one problem

Truman's not in this world of his own free will, and once he begins to suspect that its not real, all he wants to do is leave. Either he's going stir crazy or something's wrong with the world. This too is a much theorised issue with all-encompassing VR.

It is fine and dandy when you are the one who voluntarily chooses to be there, but placed in an environment outside your free will and forced to live it? Once you find out, would you do other than Truman, in seeking reality, or death?

A related problem is that Truman is very much akin to an artificial consciousness, in as far as VR theory goes. He's not artificial himself, but the basics are the same. He grew up in the VR. He was shaped and formed, and grown, his every sensory input has come from the VR. He is essentially in every way that matters, a child of the virtual world, embodied within it. There is no planned way for him to leave, and as the world is entirely contained, can he even leave, is it possible?

This is a problem we may well have with artificial consciousness if and when we do create it. A long-term issue, but one which is worth considering, when artificial general intelligence - essentially the creation of virtually embodied Ais with a sense of self awareness - is a serious discipline and very active field of endeavour. If or when we create such AI and use them as embodied characters in VRs, what do we do when one of these sentients wants to leave?

Do we turn these worlds into emigration simulations, or do we force the mind to stay inside? Ultimately we will have to address these concerns, and the Truman Show does a wonderful job of expressing them. In the film's case, the answer was to try to force the mind to stay inside. Truman's answer to this of course was "I am going to get out, or die trying."

The Classic VR Shot

Finally he ends up at the river, and the camera shows us a classic moment, slightly elevated, begind the car, as it looks at the long straight road leading over the water. Whether coincidentally or not, this is the exact same image used in 'The Thirteenth Floor' to show the character staring into the edges of a now very obvious simulation.

The car jaunt does not work out. Whilst he does cross the river, the mainland is still part of the simulation, and he is stopped before reaching the edge. After a couple more attempts, he gets sneaky, and manages to fool an 'empty room' that he is sleeping, whilst he sneaks out, disguised as another - so the sensor web doers not detect him. By this point he suspects the existence of the sensor network, and has reasoned how it must operate.

Cue the Sun

As it dawns on the producer that Truman has gone, more and more layers of the simulation are rapidly shed, as all the stops are pulled to find him. By this time it is late at night, and attempts move slowly. Too slowly, so at 3am, the final shreds of doubt are removed. A frantic director needs more light. So, at 3am, the sun rises - at high speed.

Slamming up from the ocean level and rising in a matter of seconds to midday level, before stopping, this meteoric rise of the sun sheds all doubt for Truman, and any sane person that the world is not real at all.

Yet still, they cannot find him. Every actor, every extra, every NPC are out in force, searching the island from top to bottom, looking for him. Every camera is actively scanning the land.

Then it dawns. Truman couldn't have could he? Would he have gone there? The one place everyone knew he would not go? With increasing dread, the director turns the sky-cams on the sea.

There it is. A lone yacht, under full sail, straight away from the island, across the water. Zooming in, Truman's right there at the helm, conquering his fear. Escape, or die trying.

Desperate, the director calls for a storm, centred over the boat. The wave machines scream into action, and all the vents point. The sky darkens as the simulated clouds thicken and thunder booms. The sprinklers turn on maximum power, all over that one yacht. It is slammed around, Truman is thrown overboard. The yacht tips, then rights itself. He clambers back aboard. Again and again the weather hammers him down. Each time he corrects the course, full speed away from the island.

Enraged, the director calls for maximum settings, and crushes the boat into the sea.

The sky-cam shows the worst possible image. Truman's face. He knows he is going to die now, and he really does not care. He welcomes it, if he cannot escape one way, he will escape the other.

His heart breaking, the director relents, and the storm ceases. The little boat slowly rights itself, and Truman blinks as the sun comes back out above rapidly dispersing clouds. He's won! He's free! The island gave him up!

Never has he known more joy, and urges more speed out of the boat as he charges into the unknown. Literally. With an almighty crash, the sky shatters, as the prow of the boat rams through it. Cracked and irretrievably beached, the craft jolts to a stop, wedged into the sky. It's a solid object. Almost refusing to believe it, Truman's shaky hand reaches out and presses palm first onto the 'sky'. Its solid. It does not yield. He is trapped.

Hitting the Sky

His joy dashed, Truman throws himself against the sky. He hits it with his shoulder again and again and again, till his rage is spent and he can do no more. He collapses on the boat, all hope dying.

By chance he looks at the water's edge, where water and sky meet. There, he sees a small ledge, a walkway. Lifting his head he clambers off the boat and stands on it; it too is solid, real. Cautiously as its not really wide enough, he edges along the walkway, following it away from the destroyed boat. A little way along, he finds the ledge becomes stairs, also carefully blended to look like sky. Climbing them, he finds a door, two metres above the sea. It too is painted a light blue, invisible from the island at day or night. On rhe door, embossed is a single word: EXIT.

Hope rising, he turns the handle and pushes it, opening up the blackness beyond.

As he stares in disbelief, a booming voice calls down from the heavens, where the sun filters through the clouds. It reverberates around the hemisphere, heard by all, all at once. The creator is speaking to Truman directly, for the first time in Truman's life. The director pours his heart and soul into his words, begging Truman to stay. He tells him all of it. The reason for it all.

After considering these words, Truman smiles, says his goodbyes, and steps through the door with no idea what awaits him on the other side, but knowing it has to be better than this, the cage against his will.

In case I don't see you... goodbye!

Further Reading

The Truman Show Home Page



Cyclorama: the oft-neglected Tool

Dictionary: Shadow People

Dictionary: Nested Simulation

Dictionary: Simulated Universe

Dictionary: Virtual People

Dictionary: Artificial Consciousness

Dictionary: Emigration Simulation

Dictionary: Artificial General Intelligence


Curved screen display system and method patent application

Staff Comments


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