This is how I spend most of my time now — with a virtual reality headset, lost in The Void. (Pixabay/Bobby Olivier | NJ Advance Media)
This time last month, if you’d have asked me where my favorite place in the world was, I probably would’ve said a baseball park or the Jersey Shore — both of which I was looking forward to revisiting as soon as the weather warmed. But now, as seemingly all vestiges of human merriment have been closed to the public until further notice, I’ve been forced to find serenity in solitary.
My new perfect place, I’ve come to realize, is the desolate corner of my brain where my mind is finally able to exit the Coronavirus Panic Turnpike for a few moments and I can focus on anything other than existential dread. Good books, bad TV, heaving glasses of wine — it all does the trick.
But as self-quarantine rages on, all other distractions pale in comparison to strangest yet most effective way I’ve discovered to temporarily forget this waking nightmare (hint, it’s not a controlled substance).
I’m talking about the Oculus Quest virtual reality headset — a big, black globular gadget I never wanted and barely knew existed, but over the last four weeks has preserved my sanity like no other.
An attendee tries out the new Oculus Quest at the Facebook F8 Conference in 2019. (AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images
My fiancee bought the device from Best Buy about a month ago, just as the world was starting to crumble, and I bemoaned the purchase. The console was a cool $400 — money that should’ve gone into our wedding fund — and we definitely didn’t need more video games.
But her friend owned one, sang its praises as an awesome interactive experience, and my fiancee became convinced that we needed the Oculus in our lives.
Thank the gamer gods for her foresight. Without sounding like a total Oculus shill, this is the single most overwhelmingly impressive — and serendipitous — piece of technology I’ve experienced since we upgraded to broadband internet 15 years ago.
Here’s how it works: You fit the oversized plastic headset (outfitted with two glass monitors) onto your head and over your eyes, you hold the two joysticks — which represent your hands in the Oculus world — you switch it on and you’re dropped into this immersive, 360-degree future-scape that transports you away from the COVID-19 crisis and into different games and experiences that are all unspeakably cool.
It’s basically an at-home version of the encompassing VR experiences you find at theme parks — like Disney World’s well-known installment The Void.
Some apps, like Oculus’s premiere game “Beat Saber,” shove you hard into their worlds; you’re so stimulated by action that there’s no time to consider the fate of humanity. In “Beat Saber,” you’re brandishing two “Star Wars”-esque lightsabers, which you use to slice fast-moving cubes to the rhythm of speed-freak techno songs. It’s sort of like a really intense, more cardio-centric “Guitar Hero,” and man-oh-man do I work up a sweat doing my best Luke Skywalker impression.
When the lights and pulsing “Beat Saber” jams start to melt my brain, I switch to a simpler — and calmer — application called “Wander,” which is little more than Google Maps’ street view. But instead of the little yellow guy on your laptop, you’re the one placed on the street — any street, anywhere in the world.
So, as the real planet churns in torment, I gleefully globe-trot. In five minutes, I can stroll along the Seine (by clicking arrows, not real strolling) and climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower; I hang out with tourists beneath Christ The Redeemer in Brazil; I sit inside a Mexican shrine bursting with color during Dia De Los Muertos.
These are merely images, mind you — 360-degree photographs I’ve been dropped into, not fully captured landscapes or anything resembling the sci-fi book and film “Ready Player One” (though I do feel a little like Wade Watts sometimes).
But therein lies the beauty of this app; not only can I visit anywhere, I can travel back in time — most images were taken within the last five years — and stand among a crowd of people on the Charles Bridge in Prague, or check out the gridlock in downtown Tokyo. I never thought I’d miss seeing traffic.
I’ve also visited familiar places, where I’d normally go during less surreal times: Yankee Stadium, the Asbury Park boardwalk, my friends’ houses. It’s bittersweet, of course — sometimes I feel like a ghost, or the last man on Earth traversing a world frozen mid-step.
One of my many new hangouts. (Google Maps)
But it’s still an escape, my escape, and my reconnection with anything that looks like my world did four weeks ago, when the biggest news of the day wasn’t how many new people were stricken ill or dead from a disease that is still going to sicken and kill thousands more before it’s done.
The Oculus is my teleportation away from this regularly terrifying reality and into another universe where everything is okay for a few minutes. It’s been incredibly valuable to my mental health and I suspect it might help you, too.
I understand many people have no interest in buying a pricey virtual reality contraption to mellow themselves out. All I’m saying is we have to do something to get our minds off all this.
Maybe it's a craft or puzzle. Maybe it's a movie you forgot you loved. Maybe it’s meditation — I’ve dabbled and it definitely works; as a beginner, I recommend the five and 10-minute classes on the Peloton app, but there’s plenty of free stuff on YouTube, too.
It sure seems like we’re in this for the long haul — experts say New Jersey is still at least a couple weeks away from the peak of the curve in case totals — and our daily mantras cannot be solely “survival and despair.” We need to find moments to recapture a little bit of comfort and with it, our own humanities.
I suspect the more we’re able to remain ourselves right now, the easier it’ll be to return to normal life once this all passes, which it will.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some penguins in Antarctica to visit.