The difference with the Oculus Rift (or any virtual reality) is a shift in the value proposition. It’s no longer “Do you want to play Joust on the Oculus Rift?” It’s “Do you want to relive what it’s like to play Joust in an arcade?” It’s the fabled Valhalla of “Presence” that virtual reality developers talk about—making the player believe for a moment that he or she is truly in the simulation.
Okay, maybe not this into the simulation. But you get the idea.
Traditional suspension of disbelief works a lot better on a monitor, because the very act of looking at said monitor and believing the characters on it had any reality whatsoever fundamentally requires suspension of disbelief.
Presence though, that’s harder. I’ve said before that virtual reality—when successful—doesn’t feel so much like “Playing a game” as it does “Living your life.” Memories made feel like memories of things you did, not like memories of playing a game. That goofy-looking headset strapped over your eyes tricks your brain into registering things differently. And that’s amazing.
But in order to reach that point, to reach the heightened state of awareness responsible for Presence, everything needs to be perfect. The irony is that in virtual reality, “perfect” means “less-than-perfect.” It means scuffs on the coffee table, shoes carelessly thrown in the corner, fingerprints on a coffee cup. It means trash in the subways—not heaps of trash, but the cough drop wrapper that fell out of someone’s purse and got swept under a bench, or the bottle someone left on the bench. It means people yelling and Journey blaring and lights flashing and the ceaseless symphony of the arcade.
Reality is not sterile. It is not perfect, or quiet, or pristine. If we’re to reach Presence in virtual reality—not just for a moment but for long stretches of time—we first need to look at how we create virtual environments. Those hoping to remake reality need to work harder on randomness, on chaos, on the telltale signs of life.
Otherwise we’re playing Joust in mausoleums.
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