You may have noticed I haven’t been blogging much lately. My new job keeps me very busy and drained of energy. I’m sure you are familiar with the experience; after work all that you are up for is some TV and then going to bed, and your hobbies suffer as a result. My eyes are tired all the time since I computer all day at work anyway and they just need a rest. I’m feeling old.
Ok, enough complaining.
Now, it’s actually possible that the real reason I haven’t been blogging is that I have been lost in virtual reality. Yes, that’s right, last Christmas the family got a VR system. It was a gift for the eldest son, but of course we’ve all played around with it a bit.
It’s an early model HTC VIVE that we got used on ebay for 500 bucks (that includes tax and shipping). At that price, it wasn’t something extravagantly out of reach for a middle class family. That’s basically the price of a smartphone, which everyone in every economic class has today. That suggests we may well be on our way as a society to a Ready Player One–style corporatist oligarchical dystopia where we all spend as much time as possible escaping our drab reality for a colorful virtual world where everything is possible.
Oh wait, we’re probably already there.
So anyway, the system we got consists of a headset, two controllers and two cameras that are mounted on very tall stands. We had to clear out a space in our computer room and then calibrate the system to establish the physical play area that maps into the virtual space. It’s not really enough space to move around in, but the VR apps don’t actually require walking about anyway. Movement within the worlds is always handled by some mechanic involving the hands or controllers.
The technology isn’t advanced enough (not at 500 bucks, anyway) to create any kind of pseudo-realistic experience. The experience is fully immersive, but only in a world that is abstract and cartoon-y. And I find that it is difficult to read text in the VR display, which is annoying, but that’s my old and tired eyes. I’m sure that the text is readable if you have better vision than I do.
So far my favorite games are Beat Saber, where you slice at flying cubes with light sabers, and Job Simulator, which is a satire of modern working life. There a lot of combat, FPS and RPG-type games that the boys like, but that is not for me. And yes, every app we have is some kind of game. The one exception would be Google Earth.
You’ve probably experienced Google Earth on your computer screen, but let me tell you, it’s much better in the full immersion of VR. You can pick up the globe and turn it around, or zoom into it and fly around all over the planet like you’ve always wished you could do in reality. It actually can be a bit disorienting when you zoom in too fast and are suddenly perched on a mountaintop.
In the close up the view is actually rendered graphics, not satellite imagery. I assume this is for software performance reasons. Again, not a hyperrealistic simulation. But you can still go into the street view, at which point you are in slideshow mode. Even here you are limited to what actual photos the Google Earth crew assembled together, but it’s still an amazing experience to wander the streets and roads of the Earth, anywhere you want.
I wanted to check out places I’ve lived as a child, so I got a set of coordinates from my Dad. I found that even immersed in the VR, there was only a vague sense of remembering the locations. They probably have changed a lot in the many decades that have passed (WP: Google invents time travel so they can expand their maps feature into the fourth dimension). But I’ll say, there was some inkling of a memory.
Even revisiting places from just twenty years or so in my past, it was hard to tell if I remembered them. Part of it might be that the perspective (I mean the actual visual perspective) is a bit different in street mode in the VR than it would have been in real life. And you can’t move around and look at anything closely; as stated earlier, it’s a slideshow.
The greatest familiarity that came with a strong sense of nostalgia was in visiting Blacksburg, Virginia, where I went to college. This is a place that will always be close to my heart, because I spent so many formative years there. I also got a strong emotion out of visiting my old neighborhood in North Carolina, where I had a house for ten years. But that is a very recent memory, and connected to a big change in my personal life.
Other than that, I don’t know, it’s just as much fun to wander around in the countryside of New Zealand (which I’ve never visited in “meat space”) as it is to try to recognize places which I did visit long ago. So if you’re wondering why I am not knocking on your door, it’s probably because I am off exploring strange lands in a virtual space. Someone please check on me every once in a while to make sure I’m not badly dehydrated.