Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

Facebook’s Director of Newfangled Operations was sitting at his desk, reading reviews on Yelp for a good place to get turkey salad. An assistant knocked at his door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, facing the assistant. “So what’s the good word?”

“Well, sir, you know that ever since we acquired the virtual reality company Oculus VR, the, uh, upper management has been anxious to learn about the user experience.”

“Yes, yes,” the Director said. “And what is the user experience? Do the people, the salt of the earth, the great unwashed masses yearning to be free…do they like virtual reality?”

“Yes, they do, but—”

“But what? Are people displeased with the gaming?”

“No, they love it. They say the exploding bodies have never been more life like.”

“Are they able to access enough pornography?”

“Of course. We’ve enabled even individuals with visual, hearing, and tactile disabilities to enjoy it. A Congressional committee has commended us.”

“Don’t tell me they’re concerned about privacy.”

“Most people accept the theory that privacy was a myth originated by the Sumerians around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

“Well what then?”

“Sir, the users’ concern is that when they wear the virtual reality headgear, they can’t tell if people are touching their food.”

The Director stared at the assistant for a few moments. “Touching their food?”

“Yes, you know. Like putting their hands all over a bowl of potato chips, and then watching while the virtual reality user eats the potato chips that have just been touched.”

The Director was a silent a moment. “I see how this could be quite a problem.”

“Sir, should we tell Mr. Zuckerberg? Perhaps—”

“No! Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t like problems.” The Director chewed on a nail. “We’ve got to fix this ourselves.”

The solution was to offer virtual reality users the services of someone who would sit in the same room with them, without wearing headgear, and would stand guard over the users’ food or drink or bodily integrity. These hired individuals—called “guardians”—could also watch coats and book bags. And for a while it worked.

But then people started to worry that these guardians were doing things to them that they had been hired to prevent. What if the guardians had been bribed by someone who wanted to dip a finger in the users’ coffee and stir it around? How would the users ever know?

So then the guardians were scraped and instead the headgear was fitted with a little camera that would broadcast the user’s immediate surroundings through a little window in the corner of the headgear’s screen. So now users could watch the real world while they were immersed in virtual reality.

After a while, users found that watching their real life surroundings was more interesting than the virtual world. If they were alone, they could watch an empty room and see if anyone came in. If they were in a room with other users, they could watch a bunch of other people wearing headgear, bobbing around in their seats and waving their hands.

Users started talking to each other while they were immersed in virtual reality. Now that they could everyone else in the room, they could talk freely, knowing that they weren’t speaking to an empty room. At first they talked about the virtual reality simulation they were using at the moment. But soon they moved on to other topics, like the weather, or upcoming weddings, or what each of them had done that day. Tech bloggers dubbed this growing practice of in-person conversation while wearing the headgear “non-virtual reality.”

Non-virtual reality became so popular that the software engineers kept enlarging the size of the window projected on the inner screen. Before long, this window took up the entire screen, so that when the users put the virtual reality headgear on, they saw a live, perfectly to-scale rendering of the same exact scene they would see if they took the headgear off.

“Sir!” the assistant said, entering the Director’s office with the headgear on. “Your program is a complete success! It is reported that 98% of the world’s population now walks around with headgear on all the time.”

“Splendid!” said the Director, wearing his own headgear. “But who are the 2% that aren’t wearing headgear? Are they from those primitive societies that walk around in loincloths and star in those movies they show at the Museum of Natural History?”

“No, sir. That was our initial theory, too. But it turns out that the 2% are hardcore techies.”

“Techies! But how can that be?”

“They say the original headset was better.”

4 thoughts on “Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

    1. I sometimes ask myself the same question. For some time I have been focusing on longer writing projects, trying to figure out just what my product is. But this is no excuse for a glacial posting schedule. Time for me to consider getting back to more regular posting. And no kidding – I appreciate your calling me out. It’s nice to be remembered 🙂

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