At this point, we’ve heard how good virtual reality can be for walking around imaginary environments and interacting with worlds up close. But what I never saw coming was how my frivolous, cool tech distraction would become my new favourite way to leave my apartment in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
As of this writing, New York has the highest number of cases of people testing positive for covid-19 at 131,830, with the number of deaths at 4,758 and climbing. The hospital near me has begun to load up freezer trucks to store the bodies, and sirens frequently speed past my apartment. I’m doing ok right now, but I’m lying if I say all of this hasn’t gotten to me. I often wonder what kinds of trauma we’ll all be left with after this comes to an end, the same way older relatives picked up habits that we might find odd based on what they’ve lived through.
Like most folks, I try to remain positive. Healthy amounts of Animal Crossing, Doom Eternal, and Ring Fit Adventure feel like a balanced game diet. With more time on my hands, I did what I always do: buy more games. I bought Half Life: Alyx, but before launching it, decided to take a dip in some other VR titles.
So, like some 90s anime, I strapped on my VR headset, snaked out the retractable mic from my gaming headset, grabbed my touch controllers and fired up some VR Chat, which seems like it’s had an uptick in users since I last checked in months ago. I overheard conversations that ranged from mundane opinions on Doom Eternal to friends joking together as they showed off their favourite avatars. A small crowd gathered around two avatars who happened to be in the same room and were actually interacting with one another. I watched along, keeping my distance. I teleported from world to world in search of similar human interactions, even if conversations happen between Master Chief and a 4 foot tall anime character.
At one point, I looked out over the railing of a giant skyscraper overlooking a beautiful city during golden hour. For a few minutes, I completely forgot that I was actually at my desk in Brooklyn at night. The thing that brought me back to Earth was the siren that drove past my apartment. But for a minute, it reminded me of the feeling I love when soaking in new places, like that quiet street in Seoul, Rome in the fall, or Barcelona’s tree-lined avenues. I was brought back to my last trip to Tokyo, where I wandered around alone and got lost exploring parts of the city before meeting up with a friend for coffee.
Next, I loaded up Bigscreen, an application that lets folks watch stuff together in a variety of different extravagant settings like penthouse balconies or giant campsites with 200-foot screens. One room just encouraged people to come talk to one another. When I entered, one guy was concerned for his parents who still smoke, despite how many times he’s asked them to stop. Another woman began talking about her smoking habit and how the pandemic has her attempting to stop.
I entered another room with a description that read “shut up and dance.” When I loaded into the room, there were several people dancing to Lady Gaga as a 90’s-era media player visualizer fired on all cylinders on a giant screen. One person flew throughout the space and high-fived everybody they came close to, including me. I closed my eyes, started moving in my chair, and before I knew it, I was dancing with everybody else. We all just accepted how silly it all was. Those of us with mics laughed and danced our hearts out.
This brought me back to my most recent trip to Amsterdam, where my brother, our partners and I visited a dance club that used to be a school. No phones were allowed, so it forced everybody to be present. We wandered from room to room and danced in the company of strangers for hours. Everyone was invited to be as silly as they wanted or as flashy as they could be, partially because everyone probably knew they wouldn’t show up as a meme on Twitter. I could barely see four feet in front of me, but I knew we all just wanted to have a good time. The world outside just disappeared for a few hours. My memory of it almost feels like an isometric view of whatever room we were in, with a black void surrounding it all.
The situation in Bigscreen was absolutely ridiculous, and it also made me forget, for just a moment, the world that waited for me when I took off my headset and my eyes adjusted back to my apartment. It was reassuring to see strangers connecting with one another and sharing their fears, and to be reminded of better times. I’m looking forward to the future, when we break out of these clouds and can touch down wherever we want again. Things might seem bleak right now, but I at least have something to look forward to. For now, VR is a stimulating way to get some virtual fresh air.