I looked into my girlfriend's eyes as I reached out to gently touch her face. In that moment, I felt something. A rush of warmth from my head to my toes. Comfort. Contentment. It should be noted that my girlfriend was, at the time, a floating ball robot.
Since early April, my girlfriend has been living in England, where she'll be until July. This has turned a once very close relationship (we both worked from home, so we were rarely apart) into a long distance one. So I had an idea: what if we tried to bridge the gap with virtual reality? Given the current state of VR, I didn't think that it would unite us in a fiery, geography-defying embrace, but I hoped it might be a bit more effective than phone calls and video chat. I figured it could replicate physical presence better than talking to someone in a tiny box on my computer screen. At the very least, I thought it would be different.
VR ended up bringing out the best and worst aspects of our relationship.
My girlfriend and I selected AltSpace VR as our primary hang because a) it's the best social VR program out there right now and b) it's free. The game is a series of public and private rooms where you can do all sorts of stuff, from chilling out and watching YouTube to playing board games, sword-fighting in a fantasy tavern, or exploring a giant jungle maze. You pick a rudimentary avatar, which can be anything from a dude who takes fashion tips from Hank Hill to just about every type of robot you can imagine (sleek and futuristic, heaps of nuts and bolts, helicopter, ninja, etc). Here's what my girlfriend and I settled on:
I'm the dude, she's the robot. I meant to pick something more interesting, but I accidentally selected the default (SOCIAL COMMENTARY) and never got around to customising him. Both of us laughed at our initial, hurried avatar picks, but they stuck. It's weird how quickly physical form ceases to matter when the voice and gestures of somebody you know is coming out of it. VR is strangely intimate, especially once you start viewing people's bizarro avatars as, well, them. Any time my girlfriend assumed a form other than ball robot, it was jarring, upsetting, even. She wasn't herself anymore. Or at least, not her VR self. My brain didn't like it one bit.
We began our journey in a sort of high rise apartment space. It was a communal area where you could build things with giant blocks (think Minecraft, only you're INSIDE THE MINECRAFT) or just sit in front of a virtual fireplace and bask in the striking lack of warmth.
Our first instinct was to get away from other people so we could Netflix and chill. But you might have noticed that our avatars are stunningly un-sexy, plus AltSpace VR lacks any kind of interface for Netflix And Chill: Colloquial Edition. Our VR hangouts would have to remain distinctly PG, only verging into PG-13 territory when we jokingly pretended our Vive controllers were dicks. We are super mature.
After what felt like eons of fiddling (this after my girlfriend had to fiddle for eons of her own to get the Vive to work), I figured out how to make a private room in AltSpace. We hung out and watched stuff in a big theatre. It was… fine. Sitting "next" to each other was neat, but it wasn't all that different from just watching Netflix while video chatting. We couldn't cuddle up or anything like that. It didn't really feel like we were together, doing the things we'd normally do together. We were sitting in the same "room," but we were still worlds apart.
We decided that we needed to explore.
Our second foray into being a VR couple began in a medieval tavern. Stereotypical "fantasy" music fluted and luted through the room while a big screen displayed random images from World of Warcraft. (We found it kind heavy handed, honestly. "DO YOU GET WHAT WE'RE GOING FOR NOW?") There were a couple other people hanging out at a table, chatting about VR. As it turns out, that is what a lot of people in VR talk about. "Hey so, VR, huh?" is the new "How about this weather we're having?"
Left to our own devices, my girlfriend and I threw swords at each other and stacked bar glasses until they were the size of an entire man. The "there"-ness of it all made it fun, like the sort of shenanigans we'd actually get up to if we were at a public bar, resolutely not talking to anybody else.
Eventually we met a few nice folks, and we invited them to explore an in-game Indiana Jones temple maze with us, because that's just what you do on a craaaaaaazy night out in VR. Now, I am normally a pretty socially apprehensive person, so I was iffy on the whole idea of our trio of tag-alongs. I was a bit annoyed, but I felt like it would have been shitty of me to say "no." My girlfriend was having a lot of fun, and I didn't want to wreck it just because I was feeling a little weird. It ended up being the right decision. Before long, we were a band of BFFs, cracking jokes and taking selfies. Seriously, here is a selfie we took when we found a skeleton:
I think VR has a way of making the ice crumble a bit more quickly, because it's all just so surreal. It's easy to feel some semblance of closeness to someone after they have phased their face through your body — which, we quickly discovered, is one of AltSpace VR's central (if unintended) appeals. Breaking and testing the limits of this foreign reality is a great way to bring people together.They say adversity makes fast friends of people, but discovery comes in close second.
Touch in VR is odd. It's odd because your brain interprets it as real — somebody actually, physically invading your personal bubble — until it's faced with incontrovertible evidence that they're not really not. You pass right through people. It's like being at a wacky costume party, only everybody is a ghost.
This means you can do some weird stuff. For instance, you can sink into the floor (by sitting down) until you're just a head peeking out from below. Or you can phase inside someone and pretend that your hands are their hands. Or you can take your VR headset off, put it on the ground in real life, and rotate it around, making your in-game character look like a contortionist jellyfish collapsing inward on itself. It's slapstick body horror. I highly recommend it, and it was a great way to grow close to these virtual — in more ways than one — strangers.
We were having a great time until my girlfriend fell through the Earth.
Falling in VR is vertigo-inducing. Falling through something reality has trained you to accept as an unfaltering constant? Upsetting, to say the least.
"She didn't even get to say, 'This looks promising!' before she fell," lamented one of our new friends, making fun of my girlfriend's tendency to say, "This looks promising" every time we didn't slam face-first into a dead end.
"I bet it's what she said all the way down," I replied somberly. "'THIS LOOKS PROMISSSSSSSSSSSING.' She's probably shouting it at angels now."
As I continued laughing and joking with our friends, my girlfriend got a little peeved that I was continuing on without her. It was a frustrating moment, because I was trying to communicate with her (we'd set up a private channel via Skype, so we could always be in touch, even if we got separated) while still talking to our friends. I didn't just want to ditch everyone. Thanks to the immediate-ness of VR, that prospect felt extra rude, more akin to Irish Goodbye-ing a party than quitting a multiplayer video game. Also, we'd made so much progress in the maze and I wanted to see the end.
But this was, first and foremost, an in-game date with my girlfriend, so she had every right to be upset. Still, you ever have one of those moments where you're on a date and you run into some friends who absolutely have to tell you a 30-minute story about the wildest IKEA trip ever? It was a bit like that. I felt like I was letting down everybody no matter what I did.
My girlfriend and I decided to head to a mutually accessible location to meet up again. I turned and faced our remaining companions, one of whom was a generic white dude like myself, the other of whom was a shadow ninja robot. "Go on without me," I said, saluting with my controller. And then I backed up until I was inside a nearby wall. I like to think it was dramatic.
Or maybe I just looked like this:
When we met up again, we discussed what happened before and after our maze adventure. It morphed into a discussion about how we approach social situations in both VR and real life. My girlfriend said she feels more comfortable in groups of people she doesn't know, because those interactions have very little weight in the grand scheme of things. I clam up in those situations, unless I'm around at least a couple people I know really well. Despite tensions, the whole episode was a learning experience, one that gave us new information about each other, stuff we could apply in real life.
We were out in public with friends, specifically in the lobby of a VR disc golf minigame. Around six of us spent hours in that lobby testing the limits of our virtual bodies. What were the funniest things we could make these forms that we were inhabiting — not merely controlling — do? People were compelled by our pageant of the bizarre. A guy from Germany popped in. There were others from all over the US, and of course, my girlfriend was in England. We were all up late. It was bleary eyed euphoria. We lost our minds laughing.
It was especially noteworthy, though, because everyone was really cool about it. Nobody tried to do anything that might feel creepy or violating. No ghostly groping or smooching or humping. We did come together in a circle and do some jerking off motions, but it was a joke born of a lighthearted environment as opposed to something serious or authentically sexual. We quickly established an unspoken trust. Maybe VR early adopters are just polite and reserved. Or maybe, being "there" makes it that much less appealing to hurt people or piss them off.
I'm not saying these things won't be issues in the future; it's quite likely that they will, and they will be infinitely more impactful than we're used to in normal games because VR is so immediate. But my experiences so far have been encouraging.
At one point during all of this, my girlfriend and I held hands.
OK, maybe 'hands' isn't the right term. If you're using AltSpace VR with the HTC Vive, then your controllers function as your hands, and they appear in the game exactly as they do in real life. Even though people have two 1996 cordless phones for hands, they gesture with them to such a degree that after a while your brain just accepts them as hands. So I guess we interlocked our controllers, or they phased together or something. We didn't think about it much. Like in real life, it just kind of happened.
While other people we talking, we got close, held hands, and looked into each other's soulless virtual eyes. My brain filled in the gaps, and for the briefest of moments, it felt like she was there. All her unique motions were there, the familiar little quirks I love. In front of me was a floating ball robot that I'd taken to calling Ball-E, but in that moment, her robot face was just her face. It was astounding.
"Hey," said one of our friends, abruptly concluding the moment, "those two keep holding hands and stroking each other's faces."
It was then that I realised we may have invented PDA in VR. At the very least, our public display of physical affection was authentic enough that people hanging out with us reacted the way they might've in real life. The whole moment was authentically thrilling, and then authentically awkward.
I never expected that VR could make me jealous.
I used to be jealous as hell in relationships. My parents got divorced when I was a kid, after my dad cheated. My first relationship ever ended with somebody cheating on me. Those events have, unfortunately, coloured my brain a rather unflattering green. I've gotten better at coping with my internal overreactions over the years, though. If nothing else, I don't, er, externalize them as much. Outside of exceptional situations, jealousy manifests as a blip on my mental radar, nothing more.
At one point, my girlfriend and one of our golf lobby friends were doing this thing where one of them sank into the ground, and the other kind of hovered above the grounded individual and pawed at their hands. It looked a little like two cats — one on a couch or chair, the other on the ground — batting at each other. They were giggling like school children, or trans-dimensional ghosts whose only tether to this reality is one of convenience. Take your pick.
For a moment, my brain registered it as flirting, and I felt an irrational twinge of panic. It's fine, I told myself, not unlike what I do when I feel jealous in real life. This is just how people interact sometimes. Besides, it's VR, nothing is real, and most of us have literally gone inside each other tonight. Still, the scenario hit close to home, even though it was acted out by cartoon robots. It was intimate, guided by touch and closeness. It was unique. It was their thing. And, just like when I get jealous in real life, I could only stand there and watch.
If a bad habit dies hard in VR, does it also die hard in real life?
One of the last times my girlfriend and I met up in AltSpace (we recently had to mail my second Vive to A Certain Michael Fahey), my microphone wasn't working. I could still talk to my girlfriend thanks to Skype, but nobody else could hear me. To be honest, I kinda enjoyed it.
Somebody had taught my girlfriend a glitch in AltSpace's fantasy tavern that let us warp to the roof, then fall through it onto a normally inaccessible balcony. We sat up there and talked about this and that. We held hands. We hugged a couple times. It was just really nice, despite the lack of so much as a controller rumble when we touched.
Occasionally, the ground peasants would hurl pumpkins at us. Sometimes we'd catch them or swat them down. At one point, another guy who couldn't talk hurled a pumpkin up at me, then picked up a sword and wordlessly gestured for me to throw the pumpkin at him so he could hit it like a baseball. This was all communicated in maybe one second with nothing but looking and slight hand movements, all while everybody around us was shouting and throwing stuff. It was one of the most intimate moments I've had in VR. Nobody else even noticed. We didn't need words. Everything just clicked.
Intimacy in VR doesn't have to be a goofy or flirty thing. Sometimes it just happens.
After a while, things calmed down, and my girlfriend and I returned to talking. The subject? VR and the adventures we'd had in it. She said she'd miss it, both as a tool for meeting people and as a breeding ground for endless, intimate weirdness. We'd come full circle, at least as far as the conversations you have in VR go. In these early days of VR being A Thing People Can Buy, people in VR just want to talk about VR.
But there was more to it than that. Like a good night out or a solid vacation, VR gave us something to mutually experience and reflect upon. It was superior, in that respect, to video chatting and going through the usual motions of, "How was your day? Have you seen today's crop of dank Twitter memes?" We had silly moments to laugh about, friends to reference, and a strange new world to ponder the ramifications of.
We weren't exactly reunited, but we didn't feel so far apart anymore.