I strapped on the headset, wondering why I’d want to see a local video company’s studio. Suddenly, I was in a brightly colored room containing several desks and a video camera. There were some lenses on the desk before me. I turned my head and more of the room scrolled into view. I turned my head back to the desk. I picked up a lens with my hands and held it before my face. A tingling started at the base of my spine.
What’s going on? I thought. I’ve done all this before in VR. Why is this affecting me now?
What astonished me was that I wasn’t just looking. The technology tied my vision to my body—to the motion of my neck and shoulders. My embodied vision twisted and turned through the space like a snake. The feeling of leaning in towards the desk, seeing the desk move towards me, blew me away. The fine details of its wooden surface magnified as I looked closer. I couldn’t believe it. I turn my head and I can see the side of the room? Unreal, I thought. Plus I have hands!
For some time the technician had been gently asking me if I’d seen enough. Now he asked a little less gently.
“That was the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen,” I said quietly, taking off the headset.
Stepping away from the exhibit, the secret of its success hit me. Every other VR experience had been oriented towards some story or task. I was trying to find an Oxygen canister for my space suit. Or I was trying to pay attention to the narrator while tracking the sound of jogger to its source. But here, the whole point was simply that I was in a room. There was nothing to do but to look around, to move my hands and my head. Nothing to distract me from the basic magic of VR: It puts you somewhere else.
It puts you somewhere else. Forget about the wonder of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, I thought. Why haven’t I realized before how amazing it is to see the world through my eyes?
The tingling at the base of my spine wasn’t going away. By the time I got outside, it had only gotten stronger. I was having a little trouble walking now. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at a parked car. An old black Pontiac. Raindrops shone on its hood. I walked a little closer, I couldn’t help it. The raindrops got bigger. Amazing.
I slowly, carefully, turned my head. An entire street scrolled away into the distance. I fell against the car, supporting myself on its hood. Thank God it’s a cloudy day, I thought. If the sun was out I don’t think I’d be able to handle this.
The curious sensation lasted for nearly an hour. I was able to drive home, but I had to drive slowly. I couldn’t take the highway. At one point the gray stone of the buildings on either side of the street got so distracting I had to pull over.
I’d accidentally discovered the true function of VR. Being in that virtual studio, moving my head and watching the view change. Leaning in towards the desk and seeing small images get larger. Magic. But when I took off the headset the magic didn’t stop. It got stronger. I could still move my head and watch the view change. And now there were many more rooms to explore. Hundreds of cars to look at, thousands of buildings to examine. Millions of drops of rain scintillating in incredible realistic detail on an infinite number of surfaces. I thought of the words of the child in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room.”