I was talking with a friend about the next great thing in video games. We’re approaching the time when gaming will truly become an immersive experience. It’ll no longer be an imitation of life, but life itself. And all those great gee-whiz fantasies about the future will come to pass. All thanks to virtual reality, augmented reality — any reality other than reality.
Life simulators will allow people live out their dirtiest, everyday fantasies that they can’t bring themselves to talk about in the light of day. And no one gets hurt in the end.
Or do they?
The elderly, whose days of Atari 2600 and original Nintendo have long passed, will gather ‘round the staring tree in their old folks homes and wax about how when they were younger, they actually experienced life.
They felt the cold rain against their skin on a hot summer day and time slowing down on a Sunday, summer afternoon, so slow you could feel the grass pushing up against your back as you gazed into the azure vault above.
That was living. Now that was experience.
The kids’ll say, “But Pops, stop talking foolish. We do experience life. I laid on a beach in Portugal. And when I was done, I was still in my apartment. No dangerous sun, no real sand between my toes, no sunscreen. But I was there same as you.”
And in some sense, the kids are right of course. It will seem as if they were there. But have they truly experienced it?
After all, virtual reality is an experience. Everything we do is some kind of experience. A life is composed of many experiences tethered together end-to-end. So, yes, virtual reality is an experience, but it’s the experience of virtual reality. It’s virtually reality.
In the not-too-distant past, before this thing called the internet was inside every purse and every pocket, we actually lived quite “normal” (what the hell is normal anyway?) lives. Difficult as it is to believe, there was a time when there were no smartphones. This epoch of human history occurred well after the dinosaurs, but before the rise of the Internet, despite popular belief otherwise. And during these heady days of radio and tapes and CD’s and everything else that predated those mediums of communication, we had real-life human experiences.
When I was 15, I took a vacation. My brother, 25, at the time had been living in Phoenix, Arizona while I lived in Ohio with my parents. He was in town visiting family, having made the drive all the way by himself. I had nothing better to do — after all, it was summer — and while my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they were able to cover the cost of a one-way plane ticket home.
So we hit the road.
It wasn’t quite a Jack Kerouac-style trip, but we had no itinerary and a faint plan — head Southwest on a major freeway. We had an atlas of paper maps, no doubt expired, but good enough to give us the info we needed. And we knew that we would take the next few days to drive to Arizona, and open ourselves to whatever came up along the way.
In St. Louis, we found ourselves in a traffic jam listening to the Cardinals play afternoon baseball a few miles away while sheets of rain poured down all around us. This seemingly unremarkable event taught me something about the indiscriminate nature of things. How could the Cards be playing a few miles away in the pouring rain? Only it wasn’t raining at all. There was a truth here that I knew but was on full display at this moment: no matter what happens, we all continue to live our own experiences. The jam — one of those mysteries of the road — broke and we were on our way.
Through Texas, the signs for the Big Texan, the Amarillo steak house that had become famous for challenging its customers with a 72 ounce cut of beef, taunted us. The meal was free if one could eat. Though we were both carnivores, we contemplated it only and never went in to take the challenge.
Midnight approaching, we pulled into Tulsa, Oklahoma and decided it would be a good time to stop. The strip was full of motels advertising great rates, some even breaking it down into hourly amounts. But we kept the class a little higher and chose a place with a flat rate — all the sleep you could buy for $19.95. You couldn’t beat twenty bucks a night. So we checked in.
The motel room was a room by definition — four walls, a door, two beds, and a bathroom. There was a modest nightstand between the beds with a lamp and a single drawer. In the drawer was a copy of the King James Bible. On the wall was a gas-station painting of some generic nature scene.
Even in the dark it looked unappealing. When we switched on the light, it looked even less appealing. The carpet was cheap and stained in polychromatic hues — impossible to discern what color it should have been. The comforters were cheap and thin. Running our fingers through them didn’t persuade us to pull them back. We didn’t see any creatures scampering about, but we didn’t want to tempt fate. The bathroom was lit by a bare bulb — at least the lamp in the room had a shade — and there were rust stains on the porcelain. The tub had bruises and scars about it. The walls seemed as thin as crepe paper, revealing odd noises from other occupants.
A rough life this room had lived, and it bore the marks of experience. I’m certain it could have told us some stories if only we were willing to listen.
We switched the light off and slept on top of the covers without changing clothes.
The first rays of the sun poked through the dingy windows and dusty curtains. We were up and ready for breakfast — eggs, bacon, toast in a Tulsa diner.
We filled the car with gas and didn’t stop again until Albuquerque.
The gas station overlooked the valley with the full city below. You couldn’t help but be moved by the beauty of the land as it swept like a wave across the brown desert.
As night was settling in around us, we were descending from Flagstaff. Something inside the engine was breaking and causing it to overheat. Of course it had been working hard to get us over the mountain, but now it should have been reaping the rewards of all that work. Only it was running hot and seizing. We pulled over to the side of the road, popped the hood, and started tinkering.
Fortunately, my brother is blessed with a mind for the mechanical. And a sweet set of tools. He pulled the small red box from the trunk and I looked on while he tinkered with some of the parts, handing him tools as he called for them.
Everything seemed to be in its place, but he suspected a malfunctioning sensor. His plan was to pull the sensor and take our chances for the rest of the drive across the desert. If it was a bad sensor, he presumed, then it’d be no problem. But if it wasn’t, then the engine will surely overheat. But we won’t know until it seizes, because we disabled the sensor. Disinclined to argue on subjects that I have little knowledge or experience, I nodded.
There was one problem, though: the exact set of tools he needed weren’t in the box.
He unleashed a steady torrent of obscenities into the cool night air. We had come so far, and to fail because we didn’t have the proper tools, that was inexcusable. But it was a strong possibility at this point.
A car zipped past us, and its red brake lights popped on. It pulled over to the shoulder then backed up until its brake lights were shining on our hood.
The door opened and a guy that neither of us knew stepped out of his car. He was wearing a blue t-shirt with a marlin on the back and jeans.
“Yeah,” my brother said. “I have a bad thermostat that I need to remove, but I don’t have the right tools.”
I don’t recall his name, but like my brother, he was a mechanic. At least, he was mechanically inclined. His specialty was cars while my brother’s was airplanes. He opened his trunk and removed a large metal tool box. He placed it in front of our car, and a they set about the task of troubleshooting the problem one more time before taking things apart.
While they worked and quietly conversed at the hood of the car, I paced along the shoulder watching the headlights of the cars brighten and dissolve into the darkness.
After a few minutes of fiddling around, they removed the sensor and we finished the drive into Phoenix without incident.
It was three nights later I found myself in the middle of the desert — at a lake of all places — standing beneath a universe of stars. It was my first real experience with the Milky Way. Being a fan of science fiction books and movies and having dreamed of launching off on my own rocket, I had seen many fictional images of this great river of stars. But nothing could top the experience of being there.
After getting thrown out of a bar for being underage somewhere around midnight, we had made our way across the dark desert back to camp. The great sky laid bare above was look into the history of all things, and to see the universe in all its glorious splendor was to gaze into our own souls. The coolness of the night air, the taste of the earth flowing into my lungs, the clearness of the night. Nothing on the screen or in print could compare to this moment.
As I recall that trip, there is no replacement for the wackiness that ensued or the days I spent in the air conditioning at the local bowling alley. There’s a special kind of learning that takes place when you get out and actually do something.
Alas, I’m sure that the engineers at Google and Apple and elsewhere are furiously working to design an algorithm that can produce millions of common and uncommon experiences. Soon, even more of our interactions with actual human beings will be virtual. So little terrain will be left to explore on our own through direct experience. I have no doubt that the experiences will seem so real that they will feel more real than reality itself.
I can’t wait until I can be the first to camp out to get the VR version of Jack Kerouac’s road trip 2K25. That way I can follow in the footsteps of Kerouac without taking my own steps. I can road trip without the danger of being in a moving vehicle, without the benefit of a true immersive experience. What’s more immersive than actually living?
But that’s the beauty of our future: soon you won’t need an autonomous car. You can jump in your virtual car and go virtually everywhere.
It’s like you’re there, even though you know you’re not.