Embracing VR/AR technology won’t just immerse you in brand new world - it’ll let you more fully explore this one, in ways you’ve not considered: because an Oculus Rift allows travel in all four dimensions.
So maybe you’d prefer to travel to Italy from the comfort of your sofa — but now, in the age of Virtual Reality, the pressing question is: what year would you like to be there? A virtual trip around Pompei during the eruption will make an open-top bus-tour seem old hat…
It takes 90 hours of relentless, carpal-tunnel-destroying clicking to cross the USA from coast-to-coast in Google Street View, slowly swooshing from San Francisco to New York's City. That’s three times as long as it took one team of hardened maniacs to actually drive, in a car, from coast-to-coast in 2013.
And yet some hardened souls have eschewed the thrill of the road to do the screen-based journey instead. Why choose the internet over the Interstate? Abject laziness? Concerns about the environmental impact of driving? Simply for the lulz and/or 15 seconds of internet fame?
It turns out that our desire to go places without going places is nothing new.
Be Here Now
From the teleporting djinns of the Arabian Nights, to Start Trek’s crew beaming themselves hither and thither, to the child who endlessly wants to know if we’re nearly there yet, travelling to new places without physically moving seems to be a deeply embedded human desire.
It doesn’t really matter if it’s exciting either: in the 1990s, an unreleased Penn and Teller video game featured a level called Desert Bus which recreated, in real time, an eight-hour bus-trip through a featureless desert. The prize for completing it is one point; if you have held onto your sanity and turn the virtual bus around for the return trip, you can win another point.
Eventually the game weedled its way onto the internet, and instead of being greeted with revulsion or indifference, the opportunity of travelling virtually was too much for many to pass up.
In fact, enough people felt the urge to complete Desert Bus’ gruelling trip that a charity - Desert Bus For Hope was established, which leverages the demented urge to travel in a featureless virtual space into a fundraising opportunity. Through a deliciously cruel donation system – the more you donate, the longer the virtual travellers must drive - a total of $3.1M has been raised.
Desert Bus’s brilliant inanity shows that the idea of wanting to “experience travel” without physically shifting isn’t down to us being excruciatingly lazy (although in this instance being a bit loopy helps).
So what is it?
God! Show me magic!
Maybe it’s because instant travel makes us, in a small but powerful way, gods of our own little worlds.
This author has secretly and happily whiled away chunks of precious life playing “Superman” in Apple Maps. Scrolling and swiping to silently glide over convincingly 3D-ified cities (New York is a good one-size-fits-all-egos starting point), and occasionally stopping to marvel at the Sim-City-on-crack madness that is a modern major metropolis, is a low-input power trip.
It’s truly addictive, as you become half peeping-tom (you’ll be amazing at the weird things that people keep on the top of buildings) and half judgmental omnipotent explorer (as you sniff out courtyards and patios of exclusive members’ clubs you’ll never belong to).
As you’d expect, if this weird little power trip is about fulfilling a niche fantasy, this is where VR steps in and makes it more real.
Google Earth has now closed the immersion loop, allowing you to explore cities, landmarks and an assortment of jaw-dropping geography in VR. Travel the world from the comfort of your own home! This is exciting technology, and – as a self-confessed map-swiping junkie – a must-try. But is this the thin end of the wedge? Should we be careful about how readily we decide to visit far-flung places in VR?
The danger here is one of societal skim-reading. How quick is the leap from, “I wonder what it would be like to wander round Prague right now?” to not ever again bothering to jump on a plane? What if you never felt the need travel at all?
Travelling at the speed of thought
There’s this bar in Seville that I would return to in an instant. It’s always crowded, with food and drink by flung about raucous barmen who, by bringing out more and more plates of outrageously tempting tapas, ensure customers overspend via a hundred tiny delicious investments.
The staff scrawl the running (and increasing) total owed in wet chalk on the bar in front of you, and you both laugh as they do it. It’s a warm, joy-filled and deeply fulfilling place. Stick me in a VR version of this bar and it’d briefly thrill me: an instant trip to a happy environment.
But I want to sip the chilled red wine and eat the tapas. Wolfing down Galician Octopus is tricky sensation to recreate in VR.
VR travel could have an double-edged effect not dissimilar to that of Google Translate, which, as it self-mutates its way to full Bable-fish capability has both made communication a miraculous breeze, whilst skinning holidays of the frisson of linguistic confusion.
Now we can all communicate, regardless of language, you’ll never accidentally order the fabled fried brains and eyeballs ever again. But you might never experience everything else that comes from fumbled, flawed, human communication, either (most pressingly, holiday romances arising from delightful, rom-com-esque misunderstandings.)
That’s why it’s travelling through the fourth dimension that will be the most nourishing outcome of VR.
Travelling through space is remarkable - but slipping free of the shackles of time makes much more sense. You can’t physically go to Carthage in 600 BCE, or London in 1666, or Berlin in 1989. But wouldn’t it be truly amazing if it felt like you could?
And, yes, thanks to VR, now you can. Berlin’s Time Rift Tours, for instance, do two slightly miraculous things at once: by recreating the virtual environment at various points in history of the Berlin wall on Bernauer Straße – possibly the most famous stretch of wall – “visitors” are able to do two unique and brand new things.
Firstly, day-trippers can now experience in VR what the wall looked and felt like in situ - in a recreated 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s Berlin, as it chillingly grew in size and influence. It is, frankly, remarkable – capturing the feeling of the wall's terrible oppression much more clearly than photographs or even film footage. You can look, and understand. (Besides time-tourism, VR will also be a remarkable teaching tool.)
Secondly, a virtual space allows you to be in places that even people alive at the time couldn’t visit. Fancy standing in the trip-wire-strewn no-man’s-land behind the wall? Why not? Peer down from a guard tower? Hop between East and West? It’s easier to understand how normal people were part of a terrible regime when you put yourself in their shoes.
In a landscape of thrilling but sometimes vacuous VR experiences, this kind of virtual tourism – breaking the walls of time, space and political machination – is food for the mind and soul. Here's a good indicator of how immersive technology will really change our lives.
And once again, it indicates that the VR experiences we’ll truly make part of our day-to-day are the ones that enable experiences that we simply can’t achieve in these highly limited, anchored-to-space-and-time flesh-bags that we call “us.”