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Elizabeth Bonesteel on the connecting power of virtual reality

Elizabeth Bonesteel on the connecting power of virtual reality


Our Q&A with the author of “Overlay” from Better Worlds, our sci-fi project about hope

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Illustration by Device

In Elizabeth Bonesteel’s story, “Overlay,” a family works their way through a top-secret facility on an important mission. As they sneak past guards and drones, it soon becomes clear that their mission isn’t what it seems, culminating in a touching moment about connection.

Bonesteel is known for her Central Corps series (The Cold Between, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment), which follows the members of a Federation-like space consortium as they deal with a looming conspiracy.

The Verge spoke with Bonesteel about VR and how it can bring families together in the far future.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

“Overlay” /

A father undertakes a dangerous mission to save his captured son in Elizabeth Bonesteel’s original story.

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Your story follows a father-and-son team as they infiltrate a secret base. What inspired this particular world? 

I tend to world-build around characters, and this world was designed for Ray. I wanted to show him as idealistic but practical, protective of his family while also trusting their skills and talents. But the main point of the scenario was to give him a clear objective and then alter it: he enters the base to rescue his son, but then has to face Ando’s insistence on staying behind. Ray needs to decide whether to recognize Ando’s right to make that choice, which is really about how much he trusts how he’s been raising his child. Parenting is full of moments like that, although most of them aren’t quite so starkly life-and-death.

As for the secret government installation? I was positing near-future here, and even for an optimistic story, I couldn’t quite shake off dystopia. Whether this is an actual event in Ray’s life is an exercise left to the reader, but I like thinking of him as the sort of person who’d coordinate an underground movement working to expose the secrets of a totalitarian government.

Photo by Steve Rehrauer

We discover that Ando is using VR to give his father one last adventure before he dies. Do you think similar technologies will see widespread use in the future?

Technologically, I think VR at this level is pretty far off. In the case of someone like Ray, who’s suffering from dementia, you’d likely be dealing with a very different interface than you would for someone who was cognitively unimpaired. That said, while I don’t think VR has taken off quite as quickly as people expected it to, its potential is too great for us to let it languish. Never mind its uses in gaming — which is essentially what I use it for in this story — but the scientific applications alone could have a massive social benefit.

Getting to the point of actually fooling a user into believing their experience is real is a different issue that brings up some ethical issues. A friend of mine suggested “Overlay” was, from a certain perspective, a horror story: Ray’s had his reality replaced with an externally constructed narrative. In the story, VR is used for palliative reasons, and I imagine people would opt in or out of the therapy as part of an advance health care directive. But there’s definitely the potential for such technology to be weaponized. It would certainly have the potential to be addictive.

There’s an interesting moment when Ando says that he was written in one of the simulations as “a brat.” How do you see these types of VR stories impacting how we perceive the past or our loved ones?

Ando is able to have a sort of beyond-the-grave dialogue with his mother, but I’m not sure it’s substantially different from the letters, photographs, or video we have today. We’ve always rewritten ourselves one way or another, choosing which memories to preserve and pass on. And once we’re gone, the people we leave behind rewrite us again. Even now, we can edit ourselves to be smoother, kinder, funnier than we really are. A VR story — fictional or otherwise — would be a more vivid, fine-grained version of the same conceit.

In Cass’ case, of course, she wasn’t writing for her own ego, at least not primarily. But the stories she chose to tell, and the roles of Ray and Ando in those stories, say a great deal about how she saw her family and what she valued in them, which, in turn, illuminates who she was. In Ando’s situation, with loss so raw and close, seeing that part of her eases some of his grief.

There are more than spy simulations for the family. How do you see these types of experiences impacting families and how they interact with one another?

This is going to depend on the family, of course. Not all families are healthy, and not all healthy families thrive on spending time together. But group entertainment, from storytellers to radio to Netflix, is traditional family pastime. A group VR simulation wouldn’t be all that different.

Where you’d see impact is in family members sharing their own stories. There’s something both selfish and generous in writing for the people you love. You’re asking them to understand how you see yourself, as well as letting them know how you see them. Impossible not to think about all the ways that could go wrong — my future VR is a bit too close to mind-reading to be free of land mines — but under the best of circumstances, it could facilitate communication, and it might even be fun. In Ray’s case, it gave him an adventure and the company of the family he could no longer recognize in the real world. The VR allowed Ando to connect to his father in the only reality he had left.