I’m all for virtual reality. The first time I saw The Matrix, I was like, “Hey, Nemo, cut the shenanigans. Some of us don’t care whether our ‘day at the beach’ is in fact another day plugged into a parasitic energy pod in a dank space dungeon. Tell the enslavement algorithm to pass me another piña colada.” For those of us who were inspired by the wrong part of that movie, the Oculus Rift headset promises to free us from the tedium of mundane daily life and let us step boldly into new worlds—all while looking super cool. And by “super cool” I mean “like someone who accidentally wandered out of the optometrist’s office while wearing a diagnostic machine that measures tolerance to embarrassment.”
There are a bunch of VR headsets, but the Oculus Rift is the best. I know this because my friend John bought one after trying all the others at Best Buy. And John is what’s known as an early adopter, which is a term for someone who buys bleeding-edge electronic equipment that will be outdated by next Wednesday. He was the first person I knew to have a digital camera, which he used to shoot a video of me wiping out skiing. Sure, the video was so grainy that my wipeout looked like a bad bootleg of Steamboat Willie, but the point is that his camera cost as much as a car.
This is why I always wait to buy electronics—you just know that in two years the given thing will be twice as good and cost a third as much. I made the mistake of buying a flat-screen TV back when a 32-inch Philips cost $2,500, and I haven’t quite gotten over it. At this point flat-screens are so cheap that JetBlue just gives you the one in your seat when the flight is over. Yeah, you’ve got to pry it out and there are a bunch of high-voltage wires and the flight attendants will scream at you (hey, I’m working as fast as I can!), but that’s just because they haven’t perfected the system quite yet. I bet it’ll get smoother, and someone who’s allowed to fly on JetBlue should let me know.
Anyway, John brought the Oculus Rift over to my house so I could temporarily escape my obsolete analog life, with its delicious food, sublime natural beauty and deep human connections. Bring on the cartoon barf-o-rama! The Oculus headset plugs into a laptop with a pair of cords, which limits how far you can physically roam while VRing. So while you probably won’t amble off into a real-life elevator shaft, you very well might flinch away from a virtual Tyrannosaurus Rex scrotum and inadvertently drag your computer off the table, thus setting up an unusually embarrassing meeting at the Genius Bar.
That is not a hypothetical example. In one of the demo programs, a T. Rex strides above your head on its way past. I’m not sure what the undercarriage of a T. Rex is supposed to look like, and I still don’t know, because I ducked like a coward while everyone in the room laughed at me. (I know this because they shot videos.)
This process—reacting to the virtual world while looking like a tool in the real one—was duplicated on the terrifying skyscraper observation platform and the terrifying roller coaster, which prompted me to sit on the floor and then rip the goggles off before I plummeted to my death. I find the real world extremely scary, so this was all very accurate, but I started to wonder when I’d get to scenarios that I’d actually enjoy, like a virtual swim-up bar or virtually having my wife order clothes for me so I don’t have to shop for them myself. I guess the technology isn’t there yet.
When I complained to John that my digital ambitions skew toward the non-existentially frightening, he downloaded a rally racing game. This was more like it. There I was, going sideways, slinging dirt, rubbing paint with my competitors. Sitting in the car, I could see my hands on the wheel, which I steered with a Wii-like remote. This was awesome. I decided to let John have a turn, but when I pulled off the headset I found myself all alone in a dark room. In yet another form of Oculus hazing, he’d left and turned out the lights. When he returned, I got revenge by clamping a clothespin on his left nipple while he was riding the roller coaster. Watch out for those horseflies, buddy!
In the Oculus world, you’re a race car driver, a daredevil, a mountain climber. In the real world, you’re a mega-dork stumbling around your living room with a TV set strapped to your face, pretending to fly a spaceship while your house gets robbed. I mean, yeah, I’m gonna get one. But not until the next, better version comes out. I can’t handle nonstop reality for too much longer, but I think I can make it till next Wednesday.