There was a time when technology such as this was the province of science fiction. And it was not a time too long ago or far, far away. References to it which appear in recent shows such as Futurama, set in the year 3000+, now, in light of developments like this, begin to seem, if not quaint, then certainly under-reaching in their speculative aims. The sort of thing that wowed audiences ten years ago in Minority Report is now pretty much here. Albeit not yet supplied in a package deal with a crisp, blue-tinged sheen, and one’s own personal Tom Cruise running about all over the place and emoting with actorly gusto.
Now, it is, apparently, the ‘dream’ of supermarkets to bring it to your living rooms. To bring their stores to your living room. And they’re ‘near’ it.
Watching the video at the bottom of the article, which showcases this technology (albeit not yet in its 3D, fully-interactive version), I couldn’t stop another image entering my mind. Yet another film reference, I’m afraid. Presented with the sleek, white, hi-definition simulation of a supermarket, I was reminded of the scene in The Matrix in which the character of Neo is presented with stacks upon stacks and rows upon rows of weaponry within the resistance’s own simulation of the eponymous simulated world. And, as a result, all I could think was: ‘Food. Lots of food.’
Of course, The Matrix is famously (or infamously, depending on who you talk to) based upon the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, as found in his 1981 work, Simulacra and Simulation. [Without having a copy of this text immediately to hand, I have been forced to refer to the relevant Wikipedia article, which, whilst, somewhat ironically, lacking Baudrillard’s original text, does contain the gist of his argument.] It is probably advisable to check said Wikipedia entry in full to get a better idea of what’s going on, but the overarching point contained within it is this: ‘our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is irrelevant to our current understanding of our lives.’
In fairness, though, I don’t think anyone would describe an out-in-the-world supermarket as a ‘profound reality’ to begin with, and so, in becoming a ‘reflection’ of it, this software started off at a disadvantage.
Moving it closer to Baudrillard’s ‘fourth stage’, which ‘is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers' lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, "hyperreal" terms.’
Baudrillard does break these simulacra down into four stages, however, therefore avoiding damning all simulations as, well, terrifying demonstrations of everything civilization-wise going down the swanny. For instance, the Wiki entry points out that ‘The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a "reflection of a profound reality" (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called "the sacramental order".’ Which sure sounds pretty good, and helpful. Pleasingly instructive, even. I’d like to think that the finest works of fiction fit into this category, though can’t say for certain whether ol’ Jean himself would have agreed.
Despite that slight uncertainty, I’m sure that this ‘3D supermarket’ idea doesn’t fit that particular bill.
Oddly, as a result of this, the ‘dream’ of a santitized 3D interactive supermarket might not be too hard to sell. Indeed, I guess part of the idea behind it is to provide the ‘experience’ of a supermarket without the fuss often inherent in visiting one. The oft-irksome business of other customers, all those unknown, or known-and-unliked, quantities jetting around the place with their overladen trolleys and their overactive kids. The grim phenomena of the queue. All the staff, young and old alike, who, if you watch them closely, appear secretly and permanently disgruntled that they’re not somewhere else, and seem unable to wait until self-service checkouts take over entirely.