And so it begins. It begins with the sale of the Oculus Rift and the death of David Bowie. Frankly, January 2016 is starting to feel surreal. The Rift is that crack in the wall where the light of that which approaches shines through. Meanwhile, big chunks of plaster are falling away and the ground is shaking. There has never been a moment in my life when Bowie has not been a music God. This is too big for an ‘RIP’ post. This can only be marked by something totally new.
So I ordered a Google Cardboard headset, thinking to myself that it was high time I got this experience under my belt in any case. Why have I put it off for so long? I suppose it’s a fear of being underwhelmed, that I’ll find it dull and be put off investing in a Rift later in the year. But it’s 2016 now, the year that everything changes. Turn and face the strange.
Whilst I waited for it to arrive, I visited Bowie World, a 3D world he set up over five years before Second Life came into existence. It’s neither the only nor the most relevant connection Bowie has… had… to the metaverse; Wagner James Au notes in his tribute: “Bowie [was] a human avatar – a master of shifting identities and personae across his career.” Totally. Bowie World, designed for dial-up, requires each room you visit to be downloaded and installed. It took me a while to make it to the church, where I found three more avatars. One of them told me about a sinister member occasionally glimpsed who passes you an audio file if he spots you. The file contains mostly noise, but if you listen carefully the sound of a child laughing can be heard.
Google Cardboard, it turns out, is not underwhelming. Neither is it Earth-shattering. What it is is an appetiser, a prelude to the new world of sound and vision that awaits us. It works a great deal better than I expected it to; in particular, I hadn’t expected that head movement would be tracked anything like as accurately or as smoothly as it is. I also hadn’t realised just how well-developed 360 video is. This is a very pleasant surprise. Standing in front of the Flatiron Building (in a 360 video found in Vrse), in more-or-less the exact same spot I stood in front of it in real life six years ago, wasn’t quite breathtaking, but it wasn’t too far off. My smartphone resolution magnified by the headset lenses makes this world look like the screen of a CRT television up close. Distant detail is frustratingly blurred. Even so, I am there. I can look up. I can turn and look in the opposite direction. I can watch the passers by.
It’s not exactly virtual reality, whatever it says on the label. I’m stuck to whatever spot the camera’s in and have only as much time there as the scene has left to play. Though this type of immersion just needs to be exploited properly and it will be a hundred times better all by itself, good to go for spectator sport, for virtual tourism and for remote concert attendance. I want to sit in the umpire’s chair at centre court. I want to watch the sun rise live over the Ganges. I want to attend Glastonbury… in comfort. I want to stand on the surface of Mars.
But it’s still ultimately only scratching the surface of the better future, a cardboard foyer to a place where all of this will likely look like so much eight bit video game once we’ve stepped properly over the threshold; a planet of dreams; an era of dreamers. There is no horizon in sight, though Bowie’s departure this week reminds me that, one day, it will be me that slips away and stays behind. I will only see so much of it.
An era of dreamers, dreaming at the speed of life. 2016 is now well and truly under way.
Ziggy played guitar.