3 Body Problem’s VR tech is different from Cixin Liu’s original books


Netflix’s TV adaptation of the novel The Three-Body Problem makes some important changes to its source material. Characters in Cixin Liu’s original book are reimagined and split into others. Threads from later books in Liu’s trilogy, known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past, are brought forward into the narrative. And thankfully, the virtual reality video game that’s played in 3 Body Problem is noticeably different to how it’s described in the book version.

The game, known as Three-Body in Liu’s text, serves the same purpose as it does in the TV series: It’s a recruitment tool for the world’s brightest and most inquisitive scientists. In the Netflix show, the device on which Three-Body is played is a sleek, almost magical machine. Its players in the TV show are both exhilarated by and alarmed at how advanced the VR headset is.

“This is not normal,” says John Bradley’s character, Jack Rooney, after trying out the game (and being virtually decapitated by Sea Shimooka’s Sophon). “Do you understand how far beyond the current state of the art this is? I mean, we’re talking about 50 years? 150?”

Liu’s description of the Three-Body VR experience is much more matter-of-fact than what we see in the show. In his book, he describes the game as running on a “panoramic viewing helmet” and, quaintly, running on a web browser. The sensation of playing the game in Liu’s version was not powered by the direct neural interface of the chrome helmet, but through a full-body suit that was described as being widely commercially available.

Here’s how Liu, clearly optimistic about VR technology at the time, describes that suit:

The V-suit was a very popular piece of equipment among gamers, made up of a panoramic viewing helmet and a haptic feedback suit. The suit allowed the player to experience the sensations of the game: being struck by a fist, being stabbed by a knife, being burned by flames, and so on. It was also capable of generating feelings of extreme heat and cold, even simulating the sensation of being exposed in a snow storm.

The TV show has no such suit. Having one would not only conflict with storytelling — imagine having to watch characters dress and undress before entering the virtual world — but the fact that the chrome headset can do so much to simulate multiple senses conveys just how alien it feels.

Image: Netflix

The Three-Body Problem was written years before the commercial revolution that brought VR technology to the masses. It was until the creation of the Oculus Rift in 2011 that mainstream affordable VR headsets started to feel real, promising industry-changing possibilities. More than a decade later, the hard reality of virtual reality has started to set in. It has obvious limitations and simply cannot provide the level of immersion that Liu promised in writing. That’s why the VR headset of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is presented as an impossible device, so much so that characters gravely warn “We don’t have this technology” to the people who are playing it.

The TV series presents the Three-Body game world as almost perfectly photorealistic, though the VR scenarios appear slightly uncanny. That’s one way to dismiss any immersion-breaking that comes from rendering, say, 30 million Chinese soldiers acting as a giant human CPU, and that looking ever so slightly off. Liu’s version of the game was implied to be photorealistic and immersive too, so the show’s producers went to very expensive-looking lengths to create a huge, believable world for its players to experience.

But Three-Body isn’t much of a game; it’s merely a separate venue for characters to do some astrophysics problem-solving — to move the plot forward against the backdrop of a historical fantasy world. It’s an artifact of a period when people who play video games were hopeful about the future of VR and its capabilities. (Though it pretty accurately reflects the wow factor of experiencing the tech: dazzling at first, but with quickly diminishing returns. There’s a lot of flash, but not much substance to these segments of the TV series.)

John Bradley as Jack Rooney and Jess Hong as Jin Cheng sit on a couch and look at the chrome VR headset in episode 102 of 3 Body Problem

Image: Netflix

The more intriguing mystery is who’s behind the tech that makes Three-Body possible. That’s why the series’ players play. They’re naturally curious, and strive to solve a problem that’s already been solved by the Trisolarans (aka San-Ti) and to know more about its makers. The alien forces aren’t just looking for smart people to explain an unsolvable physics problem, they’re looking for scientifically curious, sympathetic humans. And what better way to lure them in than with fantastic technology and one of the most enjoyable means of problem-solving: video games.

Plus, in a show full of hard-to-believe scientific phenomena (e.g., supercomputers the size of a photon, blinking stars, countdowns projected onto retinas), a next-next-next-generation virtual reality game co-created by alien game developers is some of the easiest disbelief to suspend.


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