Tripping in the Rift: Is Virtual Reality the Next Drug?
Please Rift responsibly.
Images by the author
I strap the universe to my face.
Accelerating out of an airlock, I hear staccato synth music pump through my spacecraft's speakers; starlight studs the periphery, interspersed with splashes of mauve nebulae and interstellar dust. Neck movements control my ship’s steering, I discover. Around me: the cosmos.
However many shandies deep I am, I'm buzzed. I probably shouldn't be operating spacecraft tipsy, I think. Nevermind. Got to focus. Dodging asteroids, I brandish my noggin like a turret, gunning down enemy spacecraft. adversaries erupt into satisfying, if unrealistic, fireballs à la Star Wars.
In truth, I never left Earth. My head, which I swing from side-to-side, is fastened with an Oculus Rift VR headset. I plant my face in my crotch occasionally to execute flips and other evasive maneuvers. My ears are plugged with noise-cancelling earbud headphones, preventing me from hearing throngs of towel-toting beach-goers jaunting toward the boardwalk outside and the bemusement of my friends who guzzle beer beside me.
It's a trip. In more than one sense.
My brain—convinced by an apparently gullible occipital lobe—interprets myself as being not here on the couch, but there, in this digital universe. Though my body may be perched at my friend's pad on the south shore of Long Island, my consciousness is zipping through outer space like an astral projection, or that trippy scene—you know the one—from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"Virtual technologies are things, devices, ways to take us somewhere other than where we are physically," Jim Blascovich, professor of psychology and co-director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments & Behavior (ReCVEB) at the University of California, Santa Barbara told me later.
Blascovich, co-author of the book Infinite Reality, on the evolution of virtual and digital technologies, views these technologies as an extension of ancient rites and practices—including but not limited to mind-altering drugs.
"It probably started with storytelling thousands of years ago," he said. Humans are escapist creatures—biologically, even. Our minds seem to wander nearly a third of the time we're awake; we tend to dream about four to six times in a normal night's sleep. Our ancestors decorated caves with murals, developed language, told stories, created art, theatre, poetry, literature, the printing press, photography, radio, cinematography, video games, the internet.
"Minds wander all the time, and we dream, and people take drugs to go places, and people take drugs to bring themselves back," Blascovich said. Inexpensive head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard are simply the next evolution of immersion.
It's no coincidence that one of the biggest proponents of hallucinogenic drugs in the '60s became an advocate for cybernetics three decades later.
The connection between VR and mind-altering substances has been made before. It’s no coincidence that one of the biggest proponents of hallucinogenic drugs in the '60s became an advocate for cybernetics three decades later.
One-time Harvard psychologist and all-time LSD-evangelist Timothy Leary trumpeted the potential of emerging communications technologies in his last book Chaos & Cyber Culture."“The PC is the LSD of the '90s," he proselytized.
I asked another VR researcher, Albert "Skip" Rizzo, who directs a Medical Virtual Reality program and helps treat PTSD patients at the University of Southern California, whether it might be possible to mimic hallucinogenic experiences with virtual reality technology.
He was skeptical. "I don’t know if you can say it rises to the level of hallucinogenic experience," he said. Not yet, at least. "We can build virtual environments with optical illusions and mess with people’s perceptual systems and make it look like a hallucinogenic experience, though I don’t know if anyone has really done that."
He added: "I think it might make you ill or cybersick before you have that kind of experience."
Still, both psychedelic drugs and virtual reality have a profound ability to affect people's minds, emotions, perceptions. I asked Rizzo whether VR could suffer anything similar to the fate that befell the psychedelic movement in the late 60s, when Congress criminalized LSD in the US. There are, after all, already rehabilitation clinics for people addicted to the web and gaming. Will certain mind-altering technologies be controlled as addictive substances someday?
"It would be hard for someone to say virtual reality should be banned, because we would have to ban movies and books and Disneyland," Rizzo said. It could, however, be regulated.
"What we could see is outside groups moving to moderate, manage, or censor it," he said, drawing an analogy to the film industry. "Maybe virtual experiences will be rated in the same way, and kids under 18 won’t be able to access certain virtual experiences."
Movies. It's said that at a screening of one of the early motion pictures—a minute-long clip of a train pulling into a station—panicking members of the audience fled the theater, terrified. Will future generations laugh at our credulity?
A friend taps my shoulder and I flinch.
As the day—and night—wears on, I continue to drink and sample other simulations, slowly merging old-fashioned and next-gen intoxication. I play pong with my face; I skydive; I ride a rollercoaster through a medieval castle; I soar above skyscrapers; I float through a haunted mansion while being tailed by a growling demon; I investigate a Tuscan villa.
This last simulation blurs as I jerk my head, triggering instant vertigo. The sensation is akin to the after-effects of consuming copious vodka. My stomach clenches into a knot. I feel nauseated. And the bottles of booze I've knocked back aren't helping.
I have unwittingly stumbled into the so-called "uncomfortable valley." As Wired explained, "If you turn your head and the image on the screen that's inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick."
I rip off the Rift, re-enter real reality, and lurch onto a sofa. Queasy and seemingly hungover, I recall a comment made by Chris Dixon—a prominent investor at the venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, which has a stake in Oculus Rift as well as the VR company's recent acquirer, Facebook—to The New York Times: "In some ways, the biggest competitor to virtual reality might be a bottle of wine."
Indeed, please Rift responsibly.