Is VR going to succeed? That's the wrong question to ask when your whole life is virtual.
We were late to a Houseparty with my mom, my sister, my niece and nephews. We were all going to talk and play trivia and Pictionary, or whatever the app calls it. We huddled in on the sofa, taking turns. The kids wanted Fortnite trivia, which I was terrible at. I liked the sketching game better. We played rounds of it, guessing the terrible drawings. We smiled. My hand got tired holding up the iPad. We whiled away time.
I had to hurry off and join some friends from college after, who started a weekly Zoom. I poured myself a whiskey and caught up on old times with an AirPod in my ear upstairs. I preferred the gallery view, where we all were in our little boxes and I could see everyone, even when they were silent. It was like we were together, maybe.
Then I had to hurry off 40 minutes later to get ready for a VR talk show I was joining in AltSpaceVR, where Jesse Damiani invited me to chat in front of an audience of avatars. I'd never done a VR talk show before. It was great -- and totally different than the Zooms and Houseparties. I didn't see anyone's face or eyes. But after putting the Oculus Quest headset on, I could move, and look around. I felt free... and goggled. Rows of cartoon figures lined up on risers across the stage. I stood half-overlapping with a cartoon chair, and I just spoke and waved my disembodied cartoon hands, while the cartoon host next to me asked me questions. But the host, and the audience, were very real people. I didn't look like myself, but I spoke with my real voice. And the questions were thoughtful. Afterwards, people (virtually) came up to me and asked me more questions. We took a virtual selfie. I felt like I was really somewhere, even though I hadn't gone anywhere at all.
Me in VR, in April, on the left.
Capture by Carlos Austin
Three different experiences, one same evening. Everything's virtual now. And I don't even have my VR headsets on all the time, hardly. It's difficult to carve out some time to spend in a virtual place away from where my real family is. But VR isn't pointless. Virtual is our lives now. I've never seen "virtual" put in front of more event descriptions than this last month and a half.
And, of course, here come the VR hot takes. I see everyone is rethinking VR now. Is VR back? Is VR in an iPhone moment? Is VR the future? The new future? Is this the point where it's happening? Is it more than 3D TV? Is it really the metaverse? Was Ready Player One right? Has the coronavirus made us all accept these things even more now?
I'm sick of hot takes. I don't feel like giving you one now. I'm still writing one, of course. Yeah, VR is here. It's been here. It's still here. Are you using it? I am, sometimes. But me using VR more isn't the point. Even when I'm not in a VR headset, we're all virtual. The headset is just a thing on your face. A thing that opens up even more evolved ideas of performance, communication, shattering distance. But look closer. It's already here, growing all around.
My family, on virtual Passover. The grid of conversation continues, for all of us, every day.
Downstairs right now the kids are gathering on iPads doing Roblox playdates with their friends. I'm listening to music and furiously typing on an iPad that's storing all my thoughts in the cloud somewhere. We had our team Zoom earlier on, seeing all of us together on a grid. Later on, as I always do, I'll lose myself on my Animal Crossing island, gathering fossils, paying off my mortgage to get another room, flying to islands where I can see friends and the spaces they made. My wife plays on another island, across from me, at the same time.
At 5 p.m. every day, my kid plays Fortnite with his friends, where he screams excitedly because he really feels like he's running in endless landscapes gathering whatever he's gathering, earning achievements to the next unlockable. They're having a blast.
I read a labyrinth of a book to while away the dark hours. House of Leaves, which I've put off for years. Spaces unfolding in spaces. A story about a house that gets larger and larger on the inside, and pages that hold more twisty side passages. I get lost. In all these spaces, I get lost. I remember my VR sessions, and my time in my book, and these games, all the same.
What is a virtual world? What is cyberspace? What is a metaverse? I remember a class on media history I took decades ago where we discussed how phone calls, in a sense, were the first sense of cyberspace. Communication in a void. I talk to my mom and project myself somewhere else. Old chat rooms, where you'd gather and imagine your conversations. I wrote a play about that once, a long time ago, when the internet seemed like a utopia. Where is our head when we have a Zoom, what space are we in? Is this seeming stupidly philosophical?
I guess what I'm saying is that, no matter how immersive a VR headset can be -- and it's awfully immersive -- it's really more a greater extension of feelings I already have. I can track my hands and lean forward and look around everywhere there. But to me, it's like a pair of headphones for my eyes. I put in earbuds, and my music surrounds me. Same with VR.
I've used VR for years, and I've gotten to the point where I can coexist a bit while in VR -- I peek under the goggles to check smartwatch messages. I play Beat Saber without headphones so I can talk to my kids at the same time. The world is a fluid jumble of virtual things, and us in the middle.
After over two months in a house where I'm stuck every day, exploring the same walls, sometimes I find in these virtual spaces that it feels like the house is getting bigger from within. I'm digging into new worlds, in all of them. We all are. This isn't a new thing. But our global quarantine is certainly forcing the hand. Can we be remote, and still feel connected? Can we feel like we can really see, do, accomplish with the certainty that we did before? Do we need the desk? Do we need the face time with real people? What do we need?
I remember being afraid of living in the cloud, feeling like I needed files on my local computer. Or not wanting digital music or movies, wanting discs instead. My virtual drift has been gradual and I've sunken into it. I think we all have. The degree to which a VR headset is a whole new step, versus just a fancier pair of headphones for your eyes, is where I see things now.
Instead of VR being the answer, I see the tools we're leaning on now as being the things that will just be enhanced more in VR. Like a set of monitors for your laptop. Or speakers for your music. Or a great controller. Or any other peripheral.
I've held off on saying VR is the answer, because my whole fucking life is virtual now. And after that, it's just nuance and tools. Of course VR is a future path. But until it syncs up with the mobile phone ecosystems, the cloud apps, the workflows, the people, the games we like to play, it'll always feel a step apart.
Me in Spatial, a VR app that can link up with Google and Microsoft, phones and tablets and computers. It's early days still.
To be sure, those days are coming. Every indication is that VR is going to become more like a pair of headphones, in the sense that it'll be smaller, will plug into phones. An extension, an enhancement. A better pair of eyes and hands. Not the only tool. But maybe a damn good one.
Of course, we're already surrounded with some pretty damn good tools already. But to reach across space and help connect to somewhere else, or see someone better, or be somewhere better... well, hey, sometimes I want to put my headphones on.
With VR headsets suddenly hard to find, and software tools suddenly exposed as being not integrated enough, not easy to connect to, hard to fit certain needs... well, there's a lot to be worked on.
I don't need a VR headset to escape to other worlds, necessarily. I need it to be my set of tools to get things done. And in that sense, that's what my family is struggling with everywhere. Google classrooms for the kids' remote schooling. Roll20 to replace the board game meetups my kid used to play at a friends' house every week. Animal Crossing and Fortnite and Zoom and Houseparty and FaceTime and Roblox and, yes, VR too, for everything else.
Don't worry if you haven't tried VR yet. In a sense, you already have. You don't need a headset to feel like you're on a holodeck from Star Trek. The pieces are already being built, on phones, game consoles, iPads, a good pair of headphones. A $400 set of goggles is just the next step in.