A hostess uses virtual reality glasses at the Iberia stand during the International Tourism Fair (FITUR) in Madrid last month. (©GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
If you can’t take any more reality, virtual reality is your friend and just in time too. Watching lousy American leftovers on Netflix isn’t good enough.
After a day at the online looming tower, I need something stronger to distract me from harbingers like President Trump reciting The Snake, winter trees in heat shock, nuclear strike threats, plasticized oceans, the Syrian slaughter, the shooting of Indigenous teens, American teens vs. American adults, fearing a flattening on an overcrowded Toronto subway platform and so on.
If you’re like me — are you like me? I do hope not — you need a brain vacation, a respite from trauma. I remember a line from a classic movie, Fort Apache the Bronx, from an exhausted stressed heroin-using nurse. “Smack’s like a vacation for me. A few hours floating on a raft in the Caribbean.”
Where can people go, undrugged and sober, to briefly escape their own minds wheeling with stress? VR, invented by an American teenager in 2010, is one technological cave that absorbs and distracts the pained brain.
I’m not buying a $600 Oculus Rift so I bought a $20 Google Cardboard headset to hold me until the new Oculus Go comes out later this year at $250, which is the trajectory of technology: better, then cheaper, then “no one uses that now.”
All you need for a primitive start is a cellphone in a cardboard box on your head. Virtual reality, offering computer-generated three-dimensional reality, takes you inside flat images. It is allegedly useful in medicine, architecture and the arts but at the moment I am using it to watch the Olympics.
It’s jarring and entrancing. What if a skater hooks your hair? The Guardian’s VR app shows how it works in journalism, telling news stories in new ways. It’s most helpful for the literal-minded so will be huge in the U.S.
In 2016, the remarkable Charlie Brooker — he’s a gamer, TV critic and maker of Black Mirrorseries about technology destroying humans — tried the PlayStation VR headset and said, “Bloody hell, this is the future.”
With VR, the story about the plague of solitary confinement in prison (look, it’s the Guardian) can be made real, putting the reader/viewer inside a VR prison cell. It’s like a Black Mirrorepisode for compassionate people.
You can see every inch of the walls, bunk and table, sink-and-toilet unit, ceiling, door and food slot. Imagine spending years in it. Prisoners who hallucinate after prolonged solitary say they float to the ceiling, and so do you.
I was found whimpering, attempting to climb over the back of the couch and into the corner of my office, convinced I was about to fall from a great height and break an ankle. This is hard to explain to others.
This difficulty is a considerable one for VR. Music via earbuds makes you a vulnerable pedestrian but a VR headset makes you look like an idiot with a box on your head. You could play with another VR person but you might crash into them and they can’t see you anyway. VR is for you alone. It will make you lonely.
VR offers separate realities for everyone everywhere. Watch the 5-minute Guardian film of how babies see the world. Babies are short. Babies look up at us from the floor. Babies can’t see well. To babies, we are nothing more than fuzzy shapes rattling things. Good stuff.
Yes, this is Big Brother. He won’t be in your head but he will be on it and he’ll be watching you in close-up. I think uneasily about Winston Smith with a rat cage attached to his face. Inevitably there will be VR horror games with precisely that.
The problem is that it’s so wonderfully safe and enjoyable. There’ll be a VR crossing of the glass-bottomed Zhangjiajie glass bridge across a gorge in China and I will watch it, horrified and crawling the walls, but happy because it distracts me from real problems in my waking hours, which are almost as bad as my sleeping hours when I have protracted nightmares.
VR is as good as a drug hit. It’s like a vacation. It’s a few hours floating on a raft in the Caribbean. We were not put on this Earth for pleasure, I can hear my mother saying. She’s wrong, isn’t she. Isn’t she?