I just spent half an hour in a room full of people without any pants. I didn’t wear any, either. I thought I might need pants because we were going sledding, but turns out they’re not essential.
No, it was not the real world. It was the Metaverse, the Facebook-built online world you visit with your virtual reality headset. I got one for Christmas, and I’m here to report what it’s like in this exciting new world of bumping into furniture and talking to pantless strangers.
There was art appreciation. I went to the National Gallery in London. You find yourself floating in the room, about 3 feet off the floor, so it accurately reproduces the actual experience of going to the museum with large helium balloons tied to your body. You cannot walk around the galleries, though. You point and click and are hurled across the room to land in front of a painting. You cannot read the little placards, so you miss out on things like this:
“The Scouring of St. Ajax. 1673, Raphaelonini the Lesser. In this depiction of the saint’s martyrdom, the artist has set his subject in a Renaissance palace, where the artist’s patron, Giovanni Di Micodi, is seen looking out at the viewer, as if to say ‘Hey, it’s in the Bible. Not like I can do anything about it.’ On loan from the Fritz Foundation, although we think they forgot about it because no one’s said anything in, like, decades.”
Also, everything was slightly blurry, so it’s like saying, “Hold on, before we go to the museum I want to find the glasses I wore five years ago.”
There were games. The first thing I did was play something that helps you conquer your fear of heights. I don’t actually have a fear of heights, unless I’m standing on a yard-wide space on top of an 80-story building and the wind is blowing. Unfortunately, this game puts you on a yard-wide space on top of an 80-story building, and the wind is blowing.
I froze. I did not want to conquer my fear of heights because fear seemed an eminently reasonable reaction to this experience. I stabbed the EXIT button, my virtual home reassembled around me and I was safe. I sat down in my chair; or, at least, attempted to sit. I missed the chair and hit the floor, which made me think there’s probably a game for getting over your fear of slipping on the sidewalk and shooting shards of your coccyx up your esophagus. Have to check out that one.
There was a social aspect. The Metaverse is touted as a place where people can gather and chat, or visit concerts and other performances together. First, you beam into a room where you check your appearance in a mirror. I had constructed a digital self that looked exactly like me, right down to the tall, muscular build and robust head of hair. (Cough)
But no pants. No legs, for that matter. In the Metaverse, your body stops around your beltline, and everyone floats. Perhaps in the future you’ll be able to pay for legs, and I’m sure people will; customization is everything, and people will pay actual money for the ability to buy fancy shoes that do not, in fact, exist. I’m sure Nike is setting up coding facilities in China to make the digital shoes.
When I entered the main lobby, there were a half-dozen legless people zipping around, trying to interact with other torsos. Everyone had the same blank cartoony grin. I headed to the comedy club, where a stand-up — a real person, projected against a brick wall — was telling some lame jokes.
Then I heard a voice behind me: “I’m in a comedy club, I think. Is this live?”
Everyone in the room turned around. There was some female torso gabbing away to someone somewhere, unaware we could hear her. Everyone in the room did the “Shush!” thing, finger to lips. Didn’t matter. She kept yakking away, no one could hear the comedian, and then she vanished in a sparkling beam of light.
And there were movies. This was the best. Amazon Prime’s VR movie setting drops you into a theater, where you watch the movie on a virtual screen. It’s the closest thing to a real-life experience in the entire VR world. I enjoyed an old movie. When it was over, the lights went up. I looked right, then left — there was no one else. No one to talk to about the movie. Just me with this hot, hard, heavy thing on my head.
You know how you feel when you leave the movie theater and return to the real world? There’s a lingering sense of exhilaration, if the movie was good. You feel as if the real world you inhabit is somehow better, richer, for what you just experienced. Of course, it fades, fast. But when the movie’s over in the Metaverse, and you pull off your headset and find yourself sitting alone in your real room, the feeling is different. It’s something akin to shame.
Why? Because the experience was so close to the real thing, and you liked it, and you know it’ll get better, and eventually everyone will stay home and look at false worlds through their glasses, and the public sphere will wither, and you helped it happen.
Apple is working on its own set and has said nix to any version of the Metaverse. Typical Apple: It’ll cost five times as much and do less. But I’ll be first in line.