A good newsletter by Adrian Chen.

I Fell In Love With An Immersive VR Experience At The Mall

A few days ago, I went with my friend Adam to The Void, an “immersive Virtual Reality experience,” in the Glendale Galleria mall. I was curious, but skeptical. My last experience with virtual reality was underwhelming. It was at an establishment called VR World, in Manhattan. Consumer VR headsets hung on walls in a neon-lit room that throbbed with bad techno. I was handed a humiliating gauze “VR sanitary mask” to protect the goggles and wandered over to a headset, where I was strapped in by a bored teenager whose judgmental glare I could feel inside the headset. It reminded me of going to the state fair as a kid, where my fun was always tempered by the surliness of the carnies who clearly hated us, and the world in general. While some of the games on display were interesting, most notably Superhot, which gives you a Matrix-like ability to slow down time in gun battles, I left feeling that the hype around VR did not live up to the corny reality.

So I was pleased to find that The Void has largely solved the customer experience challenges of VR World, if not the aesthetic ones. We walked into a small storefront in the mall that on first glance seems to be a boutique for hideous The Void-branded apparel hanging on grey walls. We checked in with a friendly employee at the desk who directed us to tablets where we scrolled through an unsettlingly long release form and promised not to sue if our bones turned to dust, or something.

When our pre-scheduled time slot came along we were directed to a small room to watch an introductory video. We had signed up for Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, The Void’s newest experience, created by Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment division ILMxLAB. A rebel fighter appeared onscreen and told us that our mission was to infiltrate an Imperial space station disguised as stormtroopers and obtain a mysterious-but-valuable weapon that the Empire was transporting in a small box.

We were led to a locker room. At the center, three large racks held sets of vests and helmets with visors. We backed up into the vest and strapped them on, cinching them tight, and put on the helmets. The Void employee undid the hook on my vest and I could feel it settle slightly on my shoulders. The whole thing did a good job of giving you the sense that you’re about to embark on an adventure, not a root canal.

Then we went into the main room, which The Void refers to as a “stage.” It felt a bit like being backstage on a movie set. It was a big room with a large black-walled structure in the middle. I could hear the muffled yelps and laughs of other patrons from inside the structure. We walked to a little alcove and stood in front of a closed sliding door and were told to put down our visors and headphones. The black walls disappeared and now I was inside the hallway of a spacecraft. I could hear the hum of engines and saw Adam standing next to me in full stormtrooper garb. He was holding his hands to his face, marveling at how his virtual fingers waggled along with his real fingers, despite us not wearing any sort of gloves. I pushed my hand against the grey wall and it pushed back. The graphics were about as good as a last-generation video game, but the simple fact that when I moved around in real space I also moved inside virtual reality made the illusion more convincing than any first-person shooter. The only weird thing was that when I looked down I had no lower torso, which was slightly concerning.

The door slid open and we were off.

***

The following words are so nerdy that typing them will make me cringe, but us newsletter writers are ethically obligated to provide unfiltered personal truth directly to our readers’ inbox regardless of the cost to our mental well-being, so here goes: Let me tell you about the moment I fell in love with an immersive VR experience.

I’m standing on a shaky metal scaffold that overlooks a pit of lava on an alien planet, holding a large laser rifle. Adam is next to me. Squads of stormtroopers stream onto scaffolds above and below us. A sort of hovercraft thing buzzes around the lava lake. There’s a rapid-fire cannon on its back that begins to spray us with dozens of slow-moving laser beams. The stormtroopers open up too, and soon my view is filled with a huge cloud of glowing red bolts headed straight toward us. It is beautiful, actually, like a forgotten minimalist artwork from the 1970s. I could stand there and just stare until the beams smacked into my body and face. When you get hit, it sets off a little tickling buzz on the haptic vest you’re wearing. It’s actually kind of pleasant.

At the same time, I feel a growing, primal urge to avoid the incoming energy projectiles, even though I know they are just pixels in the goggles strapped to my face. I’m really bought into the experience by this point, about eight minutes in. If I was really a rebel spy whose mission had gone south I wouldn’t just stand there stupidly and take the hits like a cable news anchor being pelted in a hurricane. I needed to find cover!

I look around. I notice that I am standing over a low metal barrier. I drop down behind it. The laser cloud and the lava pit disappear. Now I’m looking at Adam’s feet on the perforated metal platform. I look up and see the lasers hitting the wall where I was just standing in a shower of sparks. I feel safe, but also more realistically under assault than before. By treating the experience as real, I had induced in myself a weirdly wonderful psychological state.

When is the last time you’ve had a good crouch? I’m not talking about taking a shit in the woods, or tying your shoes, but making your body both small and mobile in order to hide it from someone, while maintaining the ability to move quickly. The last time I seriously crouched was as a kid, playing kick the can at my house. One of the best strategies was to crouch behind a car behind the driveway, right behind the wheel, so the person guarding the can couldn’t see your feet underneath. It was a straight shot from there to the part of the lawn we always put the can. Crouching behind the car was deliciously tense. I was safe, but on the brink of the most dangerous part of the game--running over open ground for the can. It was that same tension, experienced as a 33 year-old man, that caused a huge grin to spread across my face as I crouched with goggles on my face and a haptic backpack on my back in a darkened room in a mall in Glendale.

Jaron Lanier, the VR pioneer who popularized the term “Virtual reality,” writes in his wonderful memoir Dawn of The New Everything that one of the most exciting qualities of VR is that it “refines our ability to discern and enjoy physicality.” By placing a mirror to our physical experience outside the dreary confines of real life, he writes, VR can help us see it in new and potentially liberating ways. I went into The Void looking for this sort of trippy mind-expanding experience. But it was so enthralling in the moment that I mainly just had fun.

It was only sitting down to write this that I understood how crouching had affected me by recalling a small but poignant muscle memory. I think one part of becoming an adult is agreeing to experience life at just three distinct elevations: Standing, sitting on furniture, or lying on a bed. Climbing a tree, standing on a couch, or crouching behind a car, all of these put you in a child’s airspace. It’s almost like we are worried that the atmosphere in these in-between states is filled with a chemical that induces silliness and irresponsibility. I loved that The Void gave me an excuse to breathe in that air again.

It’s not much. But it must rank among the most profound experiences available within wafting distance of a Cinnabon.

An Educated Citizenry

I’m writing this from California, but I’ve been following the New York gubernatorial race closely in the hopes that Cynthia Nixon humiliates Andrew Cuomo in today’s primary election. I really don’t like Andrew Cuomo. When I think about why I do not like Andrew Cuomo, the thing that comes first to mind is the MTA. The MTA sucks so bad that it’s hard not to believe Cuomo isn’t purposefully running it into the ground out of spite. Sweating through my shirt underground for the better part of an hour this July as an F train sat in the tunnel inexplicably stalled just before the platform I cursed Cuomo, who, the New York Times reported last year, siphoned millions of dollars of much-needed funding to state-run ski resorts upstate, among other dumb things.

The second coherent reason for my dislike is Cuomo’s membership in a political dynasty. Political dynasties undermine democratic accountability. They turn seats of government from a privilege granted by the people into the property of aristocrats who pass them from generation to generation like fine crystal. Cuomo’s capacity to starve a crucial piece of New York City’s infrastructure strikes me as directly connected to the famous name and deep connections to the state’s political elite that got him elected. He doesn’t owe the people anything.

After these two concrete complaints, though, things get hazy. My reasons for disliking Andrew Cuomo bleed into visceral negative feelings. I dwell on personal qualities like “corrupt,” “bully,” and “lacks voice modulation.” This makes sense, since I know only a little about Cuomo’s practical role in New York politics, most of which I learned yesterday in reading Times hilariously tepid endorsement of him. In a debate with a Cuomo supporter over issues, I imagine I would last two minutes before I began to shout “I just fucking hate him” over and over again.

Before this year, I would been satisfied drawing deep on the little straw of my feelings, voting for Cynthia Nixon, then forgetting about Andrew Cuomo for another four years. But today, when we are told our capacity for rational political thought is being overwhelmed by propaganda, social media misinformation, fake news, and filter bubbles, while, at the same time, the pressure to hold and loudly express political beliefs sometimes seems unbearable, I have begun to increasingly question where my political beliefs come from and whether they stand on solid ground.

While writing this I thought about Thomas Jefferson’s widely-cited declaration that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” A functioning democracy rests on the ability of citizens to make well-informed choices about who is best suited to represent them. Thinking about why I dislike Andrew Cuomo was just one of many times I have doubted that I am the kind of citizen Jefferson was imagining.

But then I Googled the quote and learned that Thomas Jefferson never said it. According to the Monticello website, the exact quote originated on a website called PicktheBusiness.com. It is a corruption of something that Jefferson actually wrote in a letter to a guy named Col. Charles Yancey, in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Now I felt doubly stupid. The quote from the Founding Father that made me feel unqualified to participate in democracy was itself a fake, propagated by an investment tips website! This seemed to further prove my point. In an effort to educate myself and make myself a less ignorant, and the country more free, I read the original letter. Jefferson continues:

The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.

The first part strikes me as true. Power corrupts, and all that. The second part is wrong. Perhaps the only thing everyone in the United States agrees on today is that “information” can just as easily bewilder and mislead us as provide the raw material for responsible democratic choices. Jefferson’s mistake is to ignore the fact that production and consumption of information takes place within a social context. It is shaped by pressures and biases that arise, in large part, from the fact that media organizations are for-profit enterprises who compete to sell attention to advertisers.

And when we read information in the press, the meaning we make of it depends in large part on our position in society. If I am honest with myself, a lot of my negative feelings about Cuomo come from the fact that nearly every person I know and interact with also hates Cuomo, while my Twitter feed is full of Cynthia Nixon voters cheering her on. This, too, makes me doubt my dislike of Andrew Cuomo. Many opinion columnists tell us that such “Tribalism” makes impossible the well-informed citizenry that Jefferson imagined by closing our minds to information that contradicts with our tribal loyalties.

Why does a primary election in a state that I no longer live make me feel so anxious? An election is a ritual that reinforces an impossible ideal of a democratic citizen that we can’t help but fall short of. The optimist might say an impossible ideal encourages us to strive to become better citizens and a better, if still imperfect country. But these days, nothing about our failures as a democracy inspires me. The ideal seems oppressive. It is most often wielded by opinion columnists as a bludgeon to beat back forms of political life that make them uncomfortable. As much as I doubt my political beliefs for failing to achieve the ideal, I’m also beginning to question the power we give the ideal, which might as easily come from a blog post on an obscure financial tips website as a Founding Father’s pen.


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