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Released in 1983, Brainstorm is not technically a VR-based film. It is perhaps the first big screen use of a concept that became known, a year later, thanks to William Gibson, as SimStim.

From our dictionary:

SimStim is literally Simulated Stimulation, and is a logical parallel to VR. Rather than experiencing a full VR or AR experience in which your mind is placed inside a Metaverse matrix, a completely simulated reality; or the joys of physical reality -meatspace- with additional VR components grafted on, SimStim opens up a third possibility.

Viewing the world through another person's eyes, hearing with their ears, feeling with their skin, smelling with their nose. Full sensory stimulation of another person, total passivity.

Brainstorm takes place in and around a government lab, where scientists are working on the technology to allow sensations and higher brain functions to be scanned directly from the brain, recorded onto a tape then played back, allowing another person to experience them in full. Both recording and playback are accomplished through the same device 'the hat'.

The story revolves around estranged husband-and-wife, Michael and Karen Brace, and their friend, Michael's research colleague, Lillian Reynolds.

Lillian is working on a recording one evening, alone in the lab, and suffers a fatal heart attack. The machine goes on recording, and records her death, each of the brain functions shutting down, and last memories playing through… she is gone before the tape runs out.

Michael discovers her body, still slouched in the recording chair, and, eventually attempts to play back the tape. The full SimStim sensations wash over him, and he starts to feel everything she did - including brain death. The effect nearly kills him, but he manages to stop the tape.

Michael then modifies his 'hat' so as to prevent it from relaying full sensation - preventing it from actually shutting his brain down.

To explain this concept in the best way possible, the following is an excerpt from the VR book Quotes, that sums up what such a modification would be:

"'Good,' Piper said, more to herself than to Angie, touching something on the board. 'Again.' Angie felt the weave thicken beneath her fingertips. 'Again.'

Another adjustment.

She could distinguish the individual fibers now, know silk from linen…


Her nerves screamed as her flayed fingertips grated against steel wool, ground glass…

'Optimal, Piper said, opening blue eyes."

- Source: Mona Lisa Overdrive, Page: 105

After lowering the output of the hat to prevent the lethal effect, he tries again. Unfortunately, another scientist is secretly monitoring him, with an unmodified hat, seeing what Michael is up to. The tape plays with full lethal results, and the tape is locked away. Michael and Karen are kicked off the development team.

Michael, now obsessed with seeing the tape to the end, makes several attempts to hack into the lab's computers, and discovers project "Brainstorm" - which includes such applications of the device as torture and brainwashing - using tapes of near lethal exposure, and, on occasions lethal exposure - to pursuade confessions. Lillian's tape is now one of these..

Michael's son is inadvertently exposed to one of the " Brainstorm" tapes that had been developed, and his mind is severely traumatised.

This fuels Michael on, and he enlists help of friends and colleagues to destroy project Brainstorm, utterly


Brainstorm was an inspiration to early virtual reality work by Mike McGreevey and Scott Fisher at the NASA Ames Research Center.


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