On a recent Thursday night at the City Life Community Center in Missoula, Montana, Wolf Heffelfinger played a game of laser tag.
Wearing heavy scopes, Heffelfinger moved around the gym firing fake laser guns with both hands. It wasn’t much different from any other laser tag game except for the fact that it was playing in virtual reality.
As he and a friend ran through the gym, he saw himself standing in the neon-lit hallways of a spaceship. Your friend too. Since you were wearing virtual reality glasses, they couldn’t see each other, but they could chase each other in an imaginary world.
For Heffelfinger, a 48-year-old musician, entrepreneur, and free spirit, the game was another step in a decade-long obsession with virtual reality. Since the advent of Oculus headsets in 2013, he has played virtual reality, watched movies, visited faraway lands, and assumed new identities.
Heffelfinger sees his virtual adventures as a relentless search for the dopamine fix that occurs when technology takes him to a new place. But when it reaches the limit of what technology can do, that force fades. Over and over again he has stopped using his myriad of scopes, for months. But when there is a new technological advance, Heffelfinger returns to the fray.
Heffelfinger’s on-and-off obsession is in sync with the tech industry’s on-and-off love affair with virtual reality. Companies have invested billions of dollars in a concept that has been a few steps away from becoming massive for several years, but never quite getting there.
Today, virtual reality technology is perhaps one step closer to the mass market. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other well-known executives have announced the arrival of the “metaverse,” —a digital world where people can communicate through virtual reality and other new and future technologies — and there are repeated rumors that Apple will launch as well. to the contest.
However, there is a question as to whether virtual reality is really ready for mass consumption. Over the years, the improvements have never really lived up to expectations. It’s as if science fiction — decades of virtual reality novels, movies, and television — has predisposed people to perpetual disappointment.
“I want it to be a part of my life and I always believe it will be,” Heffelfinger said. “But the dream always ends.”
As Heffelfinger prepared for his game of laser tag at the Missoula community center, a group of teenagers played paintball one floor below. It was largely the same game: glasses, dummy guns, and a chase inside a gym. But the teenagers stayed in the real world.
When asked why he hadn’t signed up to play old-fashioned paintball, Heffelfinger said that playing inside a sci-fi world made all the difference, as he enjoys the experience of being transferred to another world. “I can get into the movie,” he said.
It can even be someone else. When he and his friend John Brownell started the game, called “Space Pirate Arena,” Heffelfinger chose a large, burly, ostentatiously masculine avatar dressed in camouflage clothing. Brownell chose one that looked a lot like actress Angelina Jolie. Heffelfinger imagined himself in a dystopian world.
“I suddenly remembered an episode of ‘Black Mirror,’ where two guys fall in love in virtual reality when they choose their avatars,” he said, referring to a sci-fi series on Netflix. “I don’t think he realized the effect this had on me.”
Heffelfinger visited the Egyptian pyramids. He watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in virtual reality, suspended in a sensory isolation tank. I guide a local police detective through a virtual recreation of Missoula generated from high definition photos and they came to see this technology as a way to investigate a crime scene without being there. Sometimes on cloudy Montana days, he often immerses himself in virtual reality just so he can see the sun.
“The nature of these fantasy worlds is that they feed dopamine into our brain’s reward pathways,” said Anna Lembke, a Stanford University psychiatrist and author of “Dopamine Nation,” an exploration of addiction in the modern world. “They carry with them the potential for addiction.”
But as with other addictions, tolerance can develop. Hitting the dopamine rush becomes more difficult.
Heffelfinger usually ends up bored with each new viewer. The experiences end up being repetitive. You cannot move as freely as you would like to. You can’t actually connect with other people. Virtual reality can’t match the vibrancy of the real world and sometimes you even end up dizzy.
Heffelfinger turned one of the visors into a pot for plants and another into a garment that he puts on his neck and uses for his excursions into the mountains of Montana. “Turns out, walking outside is a lot more fun,” he said.
But Heffelfinger always comes back to buy one more scope. On several occasions, he has spent hundreds of dollars on headset for friends, hoping that they will join him in virtual reality. With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, he saw technology as an ideal antidote to quarantine and it did, for a time. He was able to share with friends and strangers in an ethereal hangout called AltspaceVR.
Probably bored again. Like many people who use technology, Heffelfinger believes that it will be many years before it becomes an unalterable part of everyday life. Either way, he admits that no matter how good the tech turns out to be, he worries about spending too much time there.
“I like to get into virtual reality,” he said. “But after a while, I always want to get out.”
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