I gaze up at a galaxy of cartoon stars. Turning my head to the right I see five checkerboard platforms linked by staircases and studded with simple geometric pillars and arches. Pressing a button on my hand control, I “fly” toward this gameboardlike space station, zooming closer and closer until I’m “walking” on an upper platform. Human and inhuman enemies are hiding.
Darting around, weightless, in a bare, bright, mechanically uniform world, I try to steady the cartoon gun extended in the cartoon hand before me. The scene shifts with my gaze, though there’s a tiny perceptual lag that makes me feel like I’m trying to focus underwater. A geometrically muscular cartoon man in blue pants appears. I
squeeze the trigger on my hand control. Rocket grenades fall in slow white arcs.
“Time to die,” intones a cold computer voice. Amidst booming quadraphonic heartbeats, squawks and screams, I try to aim my gun but a huge, lime-green cartoon shadow descends and engulfs me. The pterodactyl sweeps me higher and higher into space until I explode into brightly colored confetti and vaporize into the computer-generated space that William Gibson called “cyberspace” in his seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer (Doubleday/Dell).
Back in the everyday world, I’m standing on a small circular platform at the South Street Seaport in downtown Manhattan. I’ve just finished playing “Dactyl Nightmare” on the Virtuality system, one of the first mass-market applications of the technology called virtual reality (VR). So far, even in the most sophisticated systems the simulations that VR can produce are crude, slow, and gaudily superficial. They play to the eyes and the ears and the jumpy, calculating “monkey mind”—as the Buddhists call it. Yet, in spite of these limitations—or perhaps because of them—virtual reality may transform, in the next decade, the way we construct science, architecture, engineering, education, medicine, communications, and art.
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