When I was a geeky ten-year-old in the mid-90s, I tried out a virtual reality headset in a toy store, and all my dreams were crushed. It was the Tiger R-Zone, with a clear visor that fit over one eye, showing faint red lines of two-dimensional characters. This was nothing like the Star Trek holodeck! This was nothing like Tron or Johnny Mnemonic! I tossed the headset back on the shelf in disgust and went back to real reality.
Granted, there were other, better, VR headsets in the 90s, but I missed out on those. I would occasionally see other kids in the movie theater arcade, spinning in a Virtuality ring with headset on and plastic gun darting, but my parents—who were sure even a basic Nintendo would rot my brain—always ushered me past it.
We never missed an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, though. Maybe they were just holding out for the holodeck, wouldn’t settle for anything less.
I had a similar experience in 2013 when I tried Google Glass. I wasn’t a beta user; there was one on display at the University of Colorado when I was a graduate student there. Google Glass is “Augmented Reality” rather than Virtual Reality, placing an additional layer of information on top of the real world—a map to show where you are, the prices of products in a store, a camera that will snap pictures with a tap or a word, etc. But again, science fiction had primed me to expect this to be much cooler than it was. Google Glass had the same functions as a smart phone, with a smaller, harder-to-see screen that looked like it was floating two feet in front of my right eye. It would fade halfway out if I tilted my head the wrong way. The best feature seemed to be the automatic language translation, which I later learned I could also access on a phone or tablet.
At San Diego Comic Con last summer, I learned about some of the recent developments in virtual reality. Google Glass had all but disappeared, but they were pushing Google Cardboard, a combo headset and smartphone app that creates a virtual reality experience. I tried out the new version of ViewMaster, no longer a click-through of static photos, but an interactive graphic adventure. I learned about “virtual travel experiences”: booths at certain Marriott hotels that are heated and humidified to feel like a beach, with a headset that creates the images and sounds of the beach. A place in Utah called The Void lets you wander through a whole building with a headset that creates a 3-D game experience.
Virtual reality may never be more than another gaming medium for the general public, but it has practical uses as well. A NASA scientist at the SDCC panel I went to talked about how virtual reality simulations help astronauts prepare for missions. A social scientist showed video from a VR experiment recreating an incident of police brutality, in which participants were tasked with taking a cell phone video of the simulated attack. The graphics of this simulation were crude, but the people in the experiment reacted to the experience with more emotion than watching similar violence on a screen, because of the interactive and immersive nature of virtual reality.
Throughout my childhood and teen years I was constantly wishing to be in some other world. I didn’t find that escape in games or virtual reality, but I did find it in books. It’s hard for me to imagine a virtual reality experience that will be able to rival my own imagination, and the truly immersive experience of a really good story.
Still, I’m holding out for the holodeck.