If you talk to anybody who's into virtual reality for more than ten minutes, you will probably end up speculating about when we might achieve total immersion: the point at which a simulated experience becomes functionally indistinguishable from real life. Most people will submit that we're not near that point yet, barring a nightmare scenario that Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey posited at the company's conference this weekend — imagine "you're in a room that has no movement, no sound except for yourself breathing, and no scent... and you're in a straitjacket. Potentially you could experience that situation quite closely." But a couple of hours after that speech, I discovered that it's possible to get the opposite feeling: I accidentally tricked myself into thinking reality was fake.
What I'm about to write isn't proof that VR can suddenly replace the physical world. The prototype Oculus just announced, Crescent Bay, is indisputably a big step forward from the current development kit, giving you a free range of motion for the first time. Even so, it's not the Metaverse or the Matrix. You will not enter a shooter demo and leap for cover. Your mind does not make bullets real. I used Crescent Bay twice, and I didn't find myself convinced that the virtual T-Rex in one demo was going to squash me. After my first time, I took the headset off, wrote about it, and compared notes with other attendees. When I came out after my second time, though, I felt lightheaded. The world seemed a little bit too bright and out of focus. A little bit distant.
And then I almost clipped through a member of the hotel staff.
"He will be offended if I try to take a shortcut through his shoulder."
I was waving off a promotional poster from Oculus, and I would normally describe what I did next as "running into" him. But my first reaction was to keep going, because I believed on some instinctual level that I would just fall past him, the way I'd gone through railings in the VR steampunk environment in Crescent Bay. "This is a human," I reminded myself. "He is solid, and he will be offended if I try to take a shortcut through his shoulder." I would have to keep telling myself this for the next 20 minutes.
Even as I tried to snap myself out of the optical illusion, I started keenly feeling all the things that make VR, well, virtual. I moved carefully, like I had on the foam pad in the VR booth, subconsciously feeling for "real" obstacles that I couldn't see. I spent a group interview with Palmer Luckey afraid that I was going to accidentally slip through the elbow of the person next to me. "Wow," I thought periodically, looking at my recorder. "That thing really feels like it's in my hand!" If my experience was any indication, apparently the biggest barrier to immersing myself in VR is the fact that I still exist somewhere else, and that I know I'm responsible for taking care of a body in a world that the goggles cover up.
If you're going to try to replicate my experience, it probably helps to be extremely suggestible: fighting through jet lag while surviving on nothing but popcorn and energy bars seems to work. That may sound like fasting for a vision quest, but this wasn't a transcendental experience, just a very weird one. The best point of comparison might be an aural illusion that Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash demonstrated during his talk on VR. It's called the McGurk effect, and it's a perfect example of how you can consciously know something isn't real but be unable to stop yourself from seeing or hearing it anyways. At least, maybe, until you get a decent meal.