A VR test drive and other presence stories from The New Yorker

[The New Yorker has a long and lively first person report on a variety of presence experiences via virtual reality; just the beginning and end of the story are below (note the specific reference to presence at the end of the third paragraph and the example of inverse presence at the very end). The original story also includes a 38 minute audio version. The publication has two other recent presence-related stories, one about its new Animate Objects iOS app, “an augmented-reality feature that allows you to discover the secret thoughts of everyday items, as drawn by the New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck,” and the other a short interview with artist Christoph Niemann “about his work and his feelings about technology” along with several examples of his clever animated drawings featured in and on the cover of the magazine. –Matthew]

[Image: With my Oculus, I had adventures right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Credit: Illustration by Seb Agresti.]

Taking Virtual Reality for a Test Drive

I walked with Jesus, shopped for a sofa, and flew like a bird over New York City.

By Patricia Marx
December 2, 2019

Reality being what it is right now, doesn’t an alternative sound tempting? That’s what I was thinking the other day, in my apartment, when I adjusted the Velcro straps on my Oculus Quest, a chunky virtual-reality headset made of black plastic, rubber, and a few billion transistors. The headset blocks all ambient light from the wearer’s eyes—the razzle-dazzle happens inside. I looked as if a gerbil’s casket had been plastered onto the upper half of my face. There was a faint new-car smell.

I pressed the Power button and found myself in the center of a computer-rendered 3-D glass geodesic dome with a million-dollar view of mountains. Sensors in the V.R. headset tracked my movements and instantaneously rejiggered the mise-en-scène. Gazing up, I saw stars; turning full circle, I took in a few Danish-modern sofas, a bookcase, and potted plants. Oh, look, I thought, my Oculus has a fireplace! (For a moment, I considered ditching my apartment and moving, with my headset, into a closet.) In the “living room” was an enormous floating display with a menu of options from Oculus—apps and games that I could buy for $9.99 to $29.99 (some are free). Should I travel aboard the International Space Station and experience zero gravity? Take a guided Tai Chi class? Create 3-D paintings in the air? Have a tête-à-tête with Jesus, who would lead me in a guided meditation? (The In His Presence V.R. Web site asks, “How can God fit into your crowded life with everything else on your plate?”) Disunion, the guillotine simulator, was discontinued, so I’d have to find another way to imagine what it was like to be executed during the French Revolution—perhaps I could download the app produced by Excedrin that allows one to feel what it’s like to have a migraine? (Philosophical query: Is it O.K. to cancel a real-life appointment because you have a virtual headache?)

Using the remote control, whose position and buttons are tracked by the headset (there is one for each of your hands), I pointed a light beam at one of the selections—“First Steps,” the introductory tutorial—and pulled a trigger. I learned how to manipulate objects with my glowing white avatar hands. I practiced picking up bright-colored polygons and dropping them to the ground, played tetherball, operated a drone, and swing-danced with a character who bore a resemblance to the M&Ms mascot. If you’d been there, you’d have heard me say “Wow!” an obnoxious number of times. With no visual evidence of the outside world, it was easy to forget that I was in my kitchen. The sensation of being caught up in an illusory scenario is the Nirvana of a well-designed virtual experience. In V.R. circles, this phenomenon of believability is known as “presence,” and it is why your heart rate spikes and you duck for cover when a pretend animated avalanche cascades toward you.

Back in the fakescape of my tutorial, I stretched out my arm to press an imaginary button on an imaginary console on an imaginary table, then lost my balance and fell off the stool I was sitting on, slamming onto the very real floor. I broke my toe. This was a minor misfortune compared with that of the Russian man who, while wearing V.R. goggles, crashed into a glass table and bled to death, according to a tass news story. The Oculus has a feature that allows you to map out a safe zone and then warns you when you’ve stepped past the perimeter, but I’d been sitting down.

Fortunately, synthetic globe-trotting is not toe-dependent. During the next several weeks, in various offices and media labs, I had adventures that in the physical world would defy the laws of physics but would be business as usual in a Looney Tunes cartoon. In a warehouse in Pennsauken, New Jersey, lying face down on a contraption that looked as if it were built for medieval torture, I flapped my arms, which were strapped to plastic “wings,” and flew like a bird over New York City. I played a starring role in scenarios designed to educate students, train employees, treat depressed adolescents, help football quarterbacks find open receivers, teach doctors how to communicate with patients, tour college campuses, help police de-escalate tense situations, and increase over-all empathy. I stood next to Lincoln’s ear on Mt. Rushmore.

[snip – 36 paragraphs]

My Oculus Quest now sits on a bench at home in my foyer, making me feel guilty whenever I walk by. Keram Malicki-Sanchez, an actor and futurist and the founder and director of Canada’s longest-running V.R. conference, told me (by old-fashioned e-mail from Toronto) that my response was typical: “People are dismayed when they find their V.R. headsets collecting dust, having believed that they would use them all the time.” This, however, is the correct scenario; V.R., he said, is a tool—not a television—akin to a typewriter, a piano, or a toaster oven.

I wondered, Was there anything in the here and now that could not be replaced virtually? Rosedale had answered, “A hug.” Ken Perlin, the founding director of the Future Reality Lab, at N.Y.U., addressed the question in a poem that he wrote on his blog in September, the entirety of which is:

when technology
shifts reality, will we
know the world has changed?

In order to get a feel for the future, Jak Wilmot, the twenty-two-year-old co-founder of a V.R. content studio called Disrupt, lived inside a headset for a week in February—and, of course, live-streamed every second. Cocooned in his five-hundred-square-foot apartment in Atlanta, the windows blacked out so that his circadian clock would not be affected by natural light, he slept, ate, exercised, socialized, and worked in virtual reality. He did not take his headset off even to shower, keeping the electronics dry under a homemade rig that looked like a plastic-wrapped stool perched on top of his head. What he missed most, he told me, was “not seeing day or night cycles,” adding that “to counteract this I ended up loading in simulations that would match the real-world time—a sunrise field in the morning, nighttime sky at night.” At the end of hour one hundred and sixty-eight, you can watch Wilmot ceremoniously lift his headset off his head, squint, and break into a smile. The smile gives way to laughter as he goes outside and looks up at the sky. “Oh, my gosh, the graphics,” he says. “They’re so good.”


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