Playtest is Season 3 Episode 2 of Netflix’s Black Mirror series. Another brilliant piece of work written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Dan Trachtenberg, Playtest features an American traveller who signs up to beta test a revolutionary new form of internally simulated gaming. In the episode, this takes the form of the protagonist Cooper, played by Wyatt Russell, applies to beta test a game at a company called SaitoGemu through an app called Oddjobs. The episode has a particular focus on the horror genre, the genre SaitoGemu is famous for.
Briefly, you may notice that we have opted to skip over Nosedive, due to the technology not being relevant to Generation Byte. What is nonetheless very intriguing is the social rating system, which sounds absurd but already exists in a similar form in China.
Playtest’s ‘interactive augmented reality system’
How it works in Playtest
In the episode, Cooper is taken through the SaitoGemu site and taken to a room. Cooper is told to give over his phone and any other send/receive device, and this phone is subsequently turned off. Cooper does actually turn it back on to send a photo of the hardware to a girl he met, but this goes unnoticed be the assistant, called Katie. Katie then puts a metal band device round Cooper’s head and injects a small device into the back of his head. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that a call to Cooper’s phone caused the initiation of the device to fail, making every bit of his brain fire off at once, causing his death. With this in mind, and acknowledging that every part of the user experience is fake, we will, all the same, take a look at how the simulated reality aspect of the game works.
Simulated reality vs virtual reality vs augmented reality
To make things clear, if you were to ignore the ending of Playtest, the gaming experience would arguably be augmented reality instead of simulated reality. However, the ending does reveal that all of this was made up in Cooper’s head, making it entirely simulated.
The first demo of the supposedly augmented reality involves a number of circles on a table. Then, a 3D rendered gopher character pops out of the hole and Cooper proceeds to play a game of ‘whack-a-mole’. At this point, the technology is described as being purely audio-visual, which would be the same as current VR or AR, but without the need for any kind of headset.
After this, Cooper is offered the advanced version of the technology, which he accepts. Cooper is taken to an old mansion and provided with an earpiece and then told that the injection would data mine his brain to create a horror narrative tailored to scare him the most. This is meant to remain audio-visual, but the implant quickly begins to create people or objects that can be physically interacted with, in the form of the girl he met. The implant also simulates the signal for the earpiece being lost and regained, and later imitates Katie’s own voice. Supposedly, the device manages to delete all his memories temporarily until it is taken out by the ‘real’ Katie. This is portrayed as successful, with Cooper going home to his mum, but it is ultimately revealed that it was all fabricated as we see the phone being rung and Cooper shouting ‘mom’ several times before dying.
At first, the technology seems reasonable given the other advancements seen in black mirror. Other episodes, which have included AI mind uploading, total recall and artificial resurrection, seem equally advanced if not more advanced up to this point. Presumably, this would work by the implant hacking into the brain’s existing nervous system, something backed up in the episode where the implant is described as having data tendrils that dug in too deep, threaded through the brain itself. At the end though, we realise that the implant simulated days of reality within 0.04s. This much data within this short time should be impossible, but if someone did want to simulate a person’s entire sensation they theoretically could, though not any time soon. What would be easier is to upload your brain to digital form and have a simple digital data transfer.
Gaming with a digital brain
Gaming with a digital brain is something we have talked about before, so I recommend you visit that post for more information. Fully simulated gaming with a digital brain is particularly interesting as it could create a simulated reality of practically any scenario, including scenarios with poor physics like simulator games. The main hypothesis is that all sensations and nervous systems would already be fully digitised, so digital sensory inputs would natively work and be perceived identically to ‘real’ senses. If you granted a neural net access to your entire brain and memory, it could almost definitely create scenarios that maximise horror game terror. Theoretically, if not restricted properly it could even hack into the digital brain as the implant did in Playtest. The only limit to gaming with a digital brain would be the creativity of the game developers or system at the time.