A Brief Introduction to My Fascination With Virtual Reality
(This piece is the expanded and improved edition of this original post.)
My hands move to the pulse of the music, and make the sparkles hanging in the air swirl and spin, leaving streaks of glittering colours all around us. I look over at my friend Clara dancing next to me, her fairy wings gracefully flapping behind her as she sways to the beat. We are standing on the edge of a grassy purple island that’s suspended in the air and overlooks a vast landscape of soft rolling hills and valleys. Wispy pink and orange clouds drift slowly across the backdrop.
I am giddy, enchanted by the sights and sounds.
“Look,” Clara points to a smaller island floating high above us. “Let’s go there.”
“Yes!” my own feathery wings flap and we lift off our island and start soaring through the air. I feel powerful, free. The rules are different here. Everything is different here. And yet the same. Why does it all feel so real?
Before we reach the small island, I look down in mid-air and the big island is now just a tiny shape against the dreamy backdrop, the glittering streaks we left are faint smears and our other fairy friends are just dots. Occasionally one of them comes zooming past us, on their way to another corner of the scenery. We complete our ascent and land softly on the edge of this new island.
Pink fluorescent flowers are planted in the grass here. I reach down to pick one and before I can close my hand around it, it disappears in a flash, leaving a cartoonish poof in its place, as if the world is being cheeky with me. Clara tries and the same thing happens. We break down laughing and the next time I look, the grass is replanted with fresh flowers.
“Come on,” Clara waves me over, “I really want to show you this other world. It’s so much fun.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a surprise. You’ll see.”
“Okay, cool! Let’s do it.”
“I’ll open a portal.” Clara conjures a glowing green orb that floats in the air between us. I connect myself with a green beam and the next moment, I am whisked away to another world.
THE MAGIC AND THE MUNDANE
This is the magic of virtual reality. This is how I spent many hours in lockdown. During a year when most of us have been forced to spend ungodly periods of time in isolation, deprived of connection and discovery, I have had the privilege of having my very own portal to other realms, in the form of a virtual reality headset that costs a third of the latest smartphone.
In virtual reality, pandemic health restrictions become irrelevant. The risks of travel and social interaction evaporate. The constraints of location and geography dissolve. Even the laws of physics fall away. I spent more and more time in these virtual worlds, playing games, shooting baddies, solving mysteries, sight-seeing, art making, meditating, and even making friends with real people. And yes, attending surreal fairy dance parties with these new friends, in the form of their digital avatars.
While some of the fantasy settings and superhuman capabilities were incredible and awe-inspiring, it didn’t take glitter and superpowers to capture my attention and spark my imagination. Some of my very first VR experiences, and those that woke me up to the potential of VR were actually digital renditions of very mundane experiences.
One of my first VR experiences was called Job Simulator. This was not a simulation of a wildly interesting job I might never have in real life. This was not a simulated training for flying a fighter jet; nor was it a glimpse into being an astronaut and floating outside the ISS; it wasn’t even a day in the life of an underwater welder. While all of these are possible in VR, this was a simulation of a boring, nondescript job at an office.
That’s right. I got a first-person, immersive experience of what it’s like to sit in a typical office cubicle. I got to receive memos and make copies and drink cups of coffee. While this might seem dreadfully dull, the interesting part was this: I knew it wasn’t real, yet it felt so real — or at least, real enough. It felt like I was really sitting in a cubicle. I could swivel around and push buttons and move post-its. I could lift pages and set them down on the desk. I could stand up and look around and peer down the row of cubicles and see my boss approaching. If I was feeling naughty, I could throw paper airplanes at my fellow office workers in other cubicles. (And, of course, I did.) The movements, the sense of space, even the spatially responsive audio were close enough to how the world operated in my physical reality. There was a sense of being present in that space. It was convincing. Even with cartoonish objects and imperfect interactions with them, it was good enough to trick my brain to believing I was really there. And yet, of course, on another level, I knew that this wasn’t “real.”
This interplay of real and not real, sparked a heightened attention to everything around me and the feeling of presence was sharpened. The world was novel and simple everyday things were interesting. I was interested in the paperclips. I paid attention fully to the process of picking them up and setting them down. (Okay, you got me, I threw those at my co-workers too.) This intersection of it feeling real, and the awareness of the lack of solidity of it all was key. This led to a lightness, a playfulness. What if I threw my stapler at my boss? What if I dumped all the memos on the floor and danced around. Years of suppressed workplace angst was being released. I was living as the hero of my own version of the movie Office Space. This was joy.
This, however, isn’t the magic moment. For me, it’s not in VR where the true magic of heightened awareness really happens. It’s when the headset comes off. When I’m finally ready to pluck myself out of the virtual world and land back in my physical reality, when something truly amazing happens.
I’ll never forget the first time it hit me.
THE FIRST LANDING
When I exit the VR arcade, a bit wobbly on my legs, the air is cool on the skin around my eyes and the blue light of the neon sign above the doors casts a calming glow in the dark parking lot. Just moments earlier, I had been in another reality, deeply immersed in my silly cartoon office cubicle. My body believed, to a great extent, that I was in that virtual space. The transition was quick, and I am still landing in this reality, moving in some intermediate dimension. For a fleeting moment, I wonder if this moment is real. I glance back at the arcade and at the blue neon lights. I blink as I stare at the colours and shapes and trace my gaze along the edges of the building. It all looks so sharp, the lines are so smooth and everything has exquisite detail, like the best HD graphics I have ever seen. There’s nothing cartoonish about this world.
This is real. This is my world. My everyday, regular world. Yet my senses are wide awake, as if seeing for the first time, fully present in the experience of standing in that parking lot, as if this too is just a space that’s been loaded for my senses to enjoy. A space to simply experience and play in. Here too, I am struck with awe. Here — not in a silly cartoon fantasy, not in a fairy dream world — here in this suburban parking lot, the brightness, the sharpness and the clarity of the world, and what it feels like to be in it, are truly stunning. The vividness of ordinary things fills me with wonder.
This is the place where I discovered what was possible. This is where I suddenly knew. This seemingly unremarkable reality is where I had the realization of what a powerful tool VR might be. If it could condition my mind — as it seemed to have done — to experience this reality with a fraction of the attention and appreciation I had in the virtual world, this was a tool worth exploring.
Virtual reality was not just for gaming, or for fun (although it was most definitely the most fun I had had in a while). My interest, up until then a mild amusement and a nerdy curiosity about how close to sci-fi lore we were getting, was now ignited. My fascination exploded that night. In the weeks and months that followed, the entire focus of my life shifted and VR permeated many aspects of my life — my intellectual curiosity, my writing, my social life, and even my spiritual practice.
BEYOND FUN AND GAMES
Beyond the value of these experiences for mere entertainment, what has captured my imagination above all, are the glimpses into the potential of VR as a tool for developing our minds and changing the way we experience the world. It can help us to see differently and more clearly and to live better — essentially, it is a potentially powerful tool for developing mindfulness. (This word mindfulness is tired, worn-out and beaten-down. What I mean here is simply an awareness, or a capacity to experience reality as it is, paying attention to the world with clarity, wakefulness, free from conditioning that colours experience with judgment, preference or attachment — simply a peaceful witness to life.)
Leave it to me to find in everything an opportunity for mental training, psychological shifts, and spiritual development. But I am not alone. There is growing, buzzing interest in virtual reality beyond gaming and entertainment, and it is exciting to be discovering the possibilities and seeing the research unfold in real time.
But let me slow down. What are we really talking about here? What is so exciting exactly? What really is the potential that I — and so many early adopters, tech developers, and visionaries — are seeing, and jumping up and down about?
Talking about virtual reality as leaving this realm and entering another is really no wild exaggeration. When you slip on a VR headset, it feeds your visual and auditory sense doors with input that is so immersive that it essentially tricks your brain into believing that you are somewhere else. Suddenly, you are standing on a dreamy floating island next to blue-bark trees with golden leaves set against a surreal purple sky. You look around you, take a few steps, and the world shifts and perspectives change, just as you’d expect. The landscape, technicoloured and fantastical as it is, somehow looks real and believable. The spatial audio in VR means the world sounds 3D and as you move through it, you sense where you are in space in relation to your surroundings, be they talking people, birdsong, or crashing waves. You can hear the rustling of the leaves in the trees behind you, exactly where they should be heard. A few steps further and the noise fades. You are here now. You are embodied in this space. You are fully present.
This digitally-rendered virtual world is convincing enough to your brain that stepping off the edge of the island, or a fire-breathing dragon swooping overhead, makes your heart beat and breath quicken, even though your intellect still knows that you are standing in your pyjamas, in the safety of your living room. Likewise, floating outside the photo-realistic International Space Station and looking back at planet Earth, or climbing Mount Everest, or painting a 3D landscape with magic electric paint, is thrilling and evokes a sense of wonder and awe. Suddenly, all this is at our fingertips — endless possibilities, with little regard for the limits of our physical ability, our financial means, the risks of social interaction in the midst of a global health crisis, or even the robustness of our courage.
Beyond the magic and wonder — beyond entertainment and the pure fun — of exploring these surreal and boundless virtual worlds, what can VR offer to the seeker, the philosopher, the sick and the ageing, the billionaire, the mourner, the broken-hearted — to me, and to you, who may be some or none of these?
It simply offers a new tool, unlike any before it. One that may, for you, or for that person over there, be the key to developing awareness and insight, to inner peace and freedom, that were previously unattainable, or required so much dedicated time and effort, they felt esoteric and far from reach.
A CALL TO ADVENTURE
Virtual reality is a cloistered realm, where sensory information can be purposefully designed, rather than run amok as it does in our physical reality. The virtual world can offer us a supportive training ground, conducive for the development of our mindfulness skills — a new way to learn to meditate. Distractions are limited, novelty and wonder and awe are amplified, and so new depths of attention and concentration may be within reach with more ease than ever before.
With our awareness and focus sharpened, we start to view the world with new eyes. Our perspective is renewed, and lasts even when we remove the headset. The skill of paying attention and neutral witnessing, that we can practise and develop in the virtual world, can be applied to our “real” world and give rise to a new way of seeing and being. We begin to see with eyes that are steady, bright and clear, less clouded by our filters. We can become a bit more free from feelings and thoughts, judgments and fears, likes and dislikes — seeing and sensing what is really there — appearing in front of us, and arising inside us, from the seat of a calm observer.
Our skills of wakeful attention and spacious awareness sharpened, we can also start to notice parallels between the virtual world and this physical world. Here too, we notice the dream-like quality of reality, and question whether what we perceive with our senses is really what’s there, or just another rendering, just another virtual reality, fabricated by the biological hardware that is our human brain. Here too, we start to see the futility of clinging onto objects as if they are solid and will last forever. Here too, our experience is just a spectacular parade of sensory delights, with even more stunning detail and sharper edges. Maybe we start to enjoy and appreciate more — engage more playfully. Maybe we are less upset at endings and changes and more accepting of the wild and constant ebb and flow as we watch it from a safe distance.
Maybe there is a sense of spaciousness and we feel a bit more free.
Virtual reality can be a gateway to clarity and insight previously only rumoured by meditation masters, sages and wise ones. Now, it is available to me, and you, and nearly all who are willing and ready to use this tool to its highest potential.
So what are you waiting for? Take a deep breath, get ready, come along and see for yourself. I would tell you to strap on your sturdiest adventure boots and pack your bags. But we won’t need them where we’re going.