A Final Thought: Virtual Reality


By Mitch Allen

My father’s sister died on December 30 and on January 6 I found myself in a suit and tie lifting her casket onto the steel rollers in the back of a hearse in Phenix City, Alabama. I had to go to the funeral; she was my father’s only sibling and one of the sweetest people I have ever known—and the last of a generation except for her husband who grieved her deeply and just as sweetly. He told me he was shocked to be the last one standing, an 86-year-old who has smoked a pack of cigarettes every day of his life since elementary school. “I just knew I’d go first,” he said, “not your Mama and Deddy and certainly not my wife.”

My aunt was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago and went downhill quickly. She told her neighbor she hoped to live until Christmas and that she was sorry she didn’t go to church more often. The neighbor, a devout Baptist, responded that my aunt would certainly make it to Christmas and that going to church is not how you get into heaven. She was right on the first count—and probably on the second count, too.

Another reason I wanted to attend the funeral was because I’d see cousins I may never see again. One told me her favorite memory of my late brother was him chasing her around my grandparents’ house with a loaded pistol he’d found under a mattress.

“How old was he?” I asked, shocked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but he was still in diapers. Your grandmama was making sweet tea at the time and when she saw us she screamed, threw the loose tea all over the kitchen, and ran after your brother.”

I also met my uncle’s sister, the youngest of 10 children. I knew their father had been murdered by a rival moonshiner in the 1940s, so I asked how old she was when her Deddy was killed. “I was 4,” she answered. “I don’t remember it—but I remember his hat.”

“You mean the hat he was shot in?”

“Yep. It was a Stetson. It had three bullet holes in it. Mama kept it her whole life.”

After my aunt’s funeral I had dinner with my childhood best friend who showed me what he got for Christmas—an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset. Oculus, by the way, is owned by Meta Platforms, which also owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and a hundred other companies trying to remake the world into one in which we never have to leave our homes.

I don’t use the term “mind-blowing” loosely, but this VR headset blew my mind. The virtual world is still simple (think older video games), but it is utterly 360-degree three-dimensional. During the tutorial I was asked to place a cartridge in the console to play a game. I asked my friend to do that for me since I was wearing the headset. He laughed. “There is no cartridge or console. They are virtual. You have to do it.”

I looked around the virtual world and discovered a virtual table upon which sat two virtual game cartridges and a virtual console. I picked up a cartridge with one of my virtual hands and placed it in the console. Suddenly I was holding light sabers and hacking away like a Jedi warrior at colorful cubes flying toward me. It was a simple game, but given the human race I’m sure more complex shoot-’em-up games and porn “adventures” are available, too.

This spring the band ABBA will perform a live reunion concert inside just such a virtual world, appearing as avatars of their younger 1970s selves. If I buy my own Oculus, I can watch the concert sitting right next to my friend even though we will be 800 miles apart. Soon I won’t have to travel to Alabama to attend funerals. I can simply put on a VR headset and be there with the bereaved. A generation from now, avatars indistinguishable from our actual loved ones will be available to chat with us any time we want forever, and once they start talking amongst themselves without our involvement—bam!—it will be a simulated world completely out of our control.

Speaking of which, after Christmas I went to see the movie The Matrix Resurrections. I enjoyed the original Matrix trilogy and also this fourth installment. It was largely a love story between characters Neo and Trinity (which is cool because they are both gorgeous yet well into their 50s), but the plot is still rooted in the concept that we are living in a simulation created by machines. Physicists and philosophers are speculating on the odds that this might actually be so, and I’m convinced it is. Last week I turned 60 and that ain’t possible in no real world.

In the movie there was one line that jumped out at me: “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” I am more than a little anxious about the future of humankind, which may explain why I find myself delving more and more into nostalgia—from researching my ancestors to asking relatives at funerals about the old days to attending virtual rock concerts with 1970s avatars.

But, alas, I cannot complain. Immersing oneself in the past is also escapism, just another form of virtual reality.


Categories: Smart Living