I recognize the dangers.
Nevertheless, for reasons that shall soon be obvious, I plan to spend as much of 2016 in virtual reality as possible. Sure, I might return to actual reality to feed the dogs and grab a bite for myself now and then. But otherwise, I intend to remain immersed in a sea of twinkling pixels, marveling at technological wonders that could only have been imagined back in the days when … well, when people used their imaginations.
Virtual reality is basically like stepping inside your television. I love my television. I’ve binge-watched so many shows on Netflix in the past year that I started to wonder whether watching TV wasn’t merely a harmless way to pass the time, but more like a true calling. Only now do I realize it was all just preparation for my ultimate destiny: to leave this troubled world behind and embrace a new reality, one unencumbered by the stresses of middle-class ennui.
Here’s how it happened:
The box looked innocuous enough under the tree. Inside was an ugly, bulky-looking headset with a slot for my smartphone. I put the headset on and immediately felt like an idiot.
Indeed, watching someone experience virtual reality is the stupidest thing in the world — stupider even than watching them play video games. But it doesn’t matter, because to the person wearing the headset, the outside world is irrelevant. What matters is the world inside: the magical universe of the future.
And, oh, what a world it is.
When you enter virtual reality, you leave the familiar rectangle of all your other devices behind. Suddenly everything is happening all around you — front, behind, up, down, left, right — and the depth of field is more or less infinite, reducing you to a pinpoint of consciousness inside a beautifully rendered three-dimensional world full of sights and sounds that amaze and astound.
Imagine (while you still can) that you are a middle-aged man with a bad back and arthritis. You can remember when you were a young, fearless daredevil who sought adventure wherever you went. In those days, you leapt sidewalk cracks with a single bound and boldly asked the librarian to point you to the “Thriller” section, knowing full well the risks involved. But now your muscles are weak and your spine brittle, so it’s all you can do to get through the Sunday Times without a nap between sections.
But now strap a virtual-reality headset onto your graying head. Suddenly you are hurtling down a mine shaft on a cartoon roller coaster, which spits you out onto the back of a flying purple dragon. Next, you are sliding down an Olympic ski jump when you hit the edge, fly for a hundred meters, then land soft and true. With a tap of your finger, you are suddenly underwater and a great white shark is swimming toward you, mouth open, teeth sharp, its throat three times wider than your head. Terrified, you dial up a Playboy playmate, who offers to help you forget that big, bad shark by offering you a peek at … but then you’re off to Tahiti to go surfing, standing atop Mount Everest, driving a race car at 200 miles per hour, swimming with prehistoric sea creatures, grazing with elephants on the Serengeti.
The truth is inescapable: You haven’t had this much fun in your living room since, well, ever. Every moment of pulse-pounding excitement feels real — you are there! — and with this miracle machine guiding your every thought, that long-lost feeling of vitality is suddenly coursing through your veins once again, bathing your frontal cortex in dopamine and adrenaline, the chemical cocktail of power, adventure, youth and sex.
And that’s the problem.
After my first jolt of virtual reality, I took the headset off and returned to the mortal coil of my middle-aged body. It felt heavy and slow. Also, the world I came back to still had problems. The light fixture in the closet needed replacing; the dishwasher was making an ominous clunking sound; the Wi-Fi router was acting up, and the cyst on my dog’s hind leg wasn’t getting any smaller.
Faced with such real-world annoyances, can you blame me for strapping my headset back on and going for a long walk on Mars? Is it so surprising that I would prefer to navigate an ARC-170 Starfighter through a field of giant asteroids than drive a 10-year-old Nissan Altima to Target?
In my defense, I’m not the only one who will be spending a significant amount of time in virtual reality during the coming year. At the latest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, several companies demonstrated virtual-reality gaming platforms (PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and the much-anticipated Oculus Rift, among them), all of which represent fundamental leaps in quality for yet another technology that, as Oculus VR President Jason Rubin so humbly puts it, is poised to “change the world.”
The entertainment-industrial complex is always searching for ever-more-engrossing forms of media. And now that Facebook is boring, Imax movies are old hat and everyone has seen everything worth watching on Netflix, many smart people consider virtual reality the Next Big Thing in digital media. According to SuperData Research, virtual reality will be a $5.1 billion industry this year, up from $660 million last year.
One of the reasons the virtual-reality market is growing so quickly is that, in 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a whopping $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, developers of the Oculus Rift, which promises to be the most sophisticated virtual-reality device ever created. Zuckerberg’s goal was to accelerate the technology’s development and pull ahead in the race to bring virtual (or so-called “augmented”) reality to the public. Goal achieved: The Oculus Rift will be available to the public March 28 for a mere $599.
Google, too, is in the game. Several months ago, readers of the New York Times received a curious piece of cardboard with their Sunday paper. Those who didn’t throw the brown slab away and instead followed the assembly instructions discovered that what had actually come with their paper was a set of Google Cardboard glasses — an ingeniously low-tech gateway to the high-tech world of virtual reality.
Like Samsung’s Gear VR, Google Cardboard turns your smartphone into a three-dimensional viewing device. The image is comparatively crude, but the immersive illusion is surprisingly effective. Just fire up the New York Times VR app, and suddenly you can be taking a walking tour through New York or watching Ted Cruz woo a crowd on the campaign trail.
The scary/exciting thing about virtual reality at this point in its development is that the Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and all the rest — as advanced as they are — still represent primitive forms of this emerging medium. The graphics and content will keep improving, and the technology driving it will continue to get more powerful and sophisticated. Eventually, tech sages predict, the uses for virtual reality will extend to such fields as manufacturing, design, architecture, medical research, psychology, security, law enforcement and, yes, pornography.
Soon, the human imagination may be entirely obsolete, replaced by an alternate reality so seductive that even seduction will seem boring by comparison.
I’d be more worried about it all if I had young children. My generation had to fight — then succumb to — the scourge of video and computer games. Prying kids away from Halo, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft was hard enough. I pity the next generation of parents, who will have to yank their kids’ headsets off just to stuff some food down their throats.
But that’s their problem. I, for one, welcome the opportunity to give my once-lively imagination a rest. Sure, it served me well for a long time, but its time has come and gone. The makers of virtual reality are busy thinking of everything, so that we don’t have to.
Tad Simons is a freelance writer in St. Paul.