Monday, January 16, 2017

Virtual Reality, Adrenaline, and a Day in Sin City

Here I am atop the Stratosphere in beautiful downtown Las Vegas. Just off my left shoulder, if you are unfamiliar with the city, is the Las Vegas White House. See how gold and shiny the building looks in the setting sun. If you happened to have orange hair and observed your reflection in the glass you would almost think you look normal...almost. Architecturally speaking, apart from the gold glass, it’s actually not that interesting of a building. Scan the city. There are so many other properties that someone took some financial risk or added a few extra bucks during the design phase of their construction. The Trump Tower is a simple golden monolith in the vast valley that is Sin City. I guess I should check to see if Trump actually owns this tower or if it’s just a purchased licence to use his name at the top before I speak too harshly. Nah, that would be a waste of my time today and it’s not the point of this post. If you happen to know the truth please speak up.

Let’s get back to the top of the Stratosphere. Do you know you can jump off from way up here? That’s actually why I ventured up to the top to begin this adventure. I wanted to assess exactly how brave I would have to be in order to jump. I’ve heard various things about the plunge. It’s a bungee jump...which would be a terrifying free fall. I’ve also heard it’s a Hollywood stunt using a cable to slow your descent. As it turns’s more like the stunt, and perhaps even less so. The mechanical set up appears to be more akin to a very fast moving elevator. You are attached by body harness to a cable and the cable plays out from a drum (similar to an elevator sheave that a cable wraps around). It still looks like it take major balls to step off the platform, but it’s a fairly controlled descent (not free fall, about 40 mph). So you could close your eyes the entire way down and pretend it’s just a bad dream. At the bottom you unhook from your thin cable elevator. It’s definitely a thrill ride to consider...and I will be returning to Vegas frequently. It’s all about having the nads to step off the platform and into thin air for the first time. When I conquer that fear I’ll be back to take the step. Stay tuned.

Moving on. So after deciding not to jump off the Stratosphere, literally, and not figuratively, after throwing up in my mouth having viewed the gold monolith that symbolizes our next four years, and seeing that I was still hours away from my midnight departure on the red-eye back to IAD, I decided to go see the Star Wars movie “Rogue One”. Why not? Go to Vegas and see a show...even if this particular show is available everywhere else. Also, the guys with me were unencumbered from the necessity to ask their wives if they could go. So we were all in. We headed down Las Vegas Boulevard to the Town Square where there exists a rather large AMC theater. Showtime was 7:15 pm.

We still had a few minutes to kill, so what better place to spend some geek time then inside the largest electronics store I have ever seen. Fry’s Electronic's sits right there in the Town Square. What an amazing place. It’s like a Best Buy, MicroCenter, and Radio Shack, all packed under one huge roof.  It would take days to explore everything, but we only had 30 minutes. How do you decide? Drones, 3D Printers, or Oculus Rift. Those were the three things I thought would be perfect to check out. I also knew I wasn’t going to take anything back on the plane so chances of me buying something large and expensive was remote. Turns out Fry’s doesn’t carry Oculus Rift. Instead they carry the HTC VIVE - Virtual Reality System. This is a must buy. After donning the headset the salesman handed me the two largest weapons I have ever held, of course I was already viewing them through the headset. And as I took a step back, and lifted up my head I was standing in the middle of the Star Trek Holodeck, except completely white like the Matrix, but with the Holodeck grid lines. I had arrived. I was standing in huge white room with large square grids surrounding me...there was no doubt I was there. I heard the salesman tell me to select the option on the menu in front of me by firing at it with one of my huge weapons. I did. Immediately the game was on. The holodeck disappeared and I was in a gigantic battle arena. Flying orbs began firing at me. I lifted my weapons and returned fire. I instinctively dodged, ducked, and dodged again as incoming fire rained down.  I was completely immersed and completely fooled into believing I was actually there.  I didn’t feel any waves of motion sickness. I think because I was on my own two feet. Had I been moving around in a vehicle or spacecraft, perhaps, or spinning, things might have been different. When the game ended, I was once again standing in the large white Holodeck, wondering why I already didn’t own one of these amazing systems.  I’m not gamer. Why do I need one? I need one because the virtual reality of doing battle and firing weapons against monsters or flying robots is but a small aspect of VR. I need one because I want to jump off of the Stratosphere without fear that the single carabiner that will attach to my harness has been properly tested. I want one because should I care to climb Mt. Everest this year, I don’t have to foot the bill or spend several years planning and training. I want one because Virtual Reality is teetering on the brink sensory reality. What is sensory reality if not our brain experiencing all the stimulus of the real world in real time. This opens up medical science, an in particular, mental health research.  The bandwidth to fool our eyes, ears, and brain, is already here. Why not use it to stimulate our brain into health rather than by taking drugs or medications.  I want to own the type of band width that can create those types of effects. I’ve already set up my home computer to be VR ready...with Oculus Rift in mind. That was the first step. The jump into full VR is now only $800 dollars away. It would be foolish not to go.

Yet again I digress. Now it’s time to talk about Rogue One. Here is where everything comes together in one big attempted rush at adrenaline. Advanced  weapons, computer generated imagery, fear of high places, and of course, rogue rebels fighting an imperial force bent on taking over the galaxy. Forget, for a moment, the adrenaline rush of explosions, speed, drama, and of course the fear of falling from ridiculously high places, while hanging on by one's fingertips.   It’s funny when you think about it since we love this movie and in general all the movies in the Star Wars franchise.  And we do so for one reason and one reason only (maybe a few more but I’m trying to make a point). Adrenaline aside, we love it because we love the underdog. It’s ironic to think that we, as Americans, believe we are the underdog. We are not. This has been said before, it’s not intellectually insightful. What is more insightful, however, is to really understand who is the underdog. And if they were to watch the movie, whilst out on their date night accompanied by their pet goat, would they naturally sympathize with the Empire and their  Imperial Death Star or the unrelenting, unabashed, rebellion that unfolds throughout Episode IX?  I’m thinking the terrorist see themselves as the rebels in this one.  In fact, with the clear alien invasions we witness in Independence Day, War of the Worlds, Aliens, etc, Star Wars remains the subtle spokesman for armed rebellion worldwide (Avatar being the spectacular spokesman for open rebellion). Success of the franchise appears to be due to a yet heretofore undefined physiological condition I’ll refer to as “Stickin it to the Man Syndrome”. It’s the slogan of choice for the oppressed.  The irony here is that somehow, someway, at some point, the Man in our country began to feel oppressed.  Picture legions of Stormtroopers commiserating together about how poorly they are being treated by the Empire and their deep desire to make change in leadership.   That’s not what’s happening.  Instead, rather, the Stormtroopers have come to believe that they are the rebels, they are the oppressed.  Power to the people.  Stick it to the Man is what they must be thinking. They stuck it to the man for sure. They have failed to recognize that they remain the Empire, they remain the Stormtroopers, they are, in fact, and will continue to remain, the Man.  Electing, Darth Vader, for instance, doesn’t change that fact, nor does it highlight this important reality.  I think ultimately that important message gets lost in the search for adrenaline.  The search for a movie that takes us on that virtual roller coaster of action and emotion.  That is what we are after, not the political commentary, regardless of who is right and who is wrong.

OK, to wrap this up.  My next trip to Vegas I will jump from the Stratosphere.  Rather than proving that I have large huevos, I will, perhaps demonstrate only that I am dumber than a box of rocks. However, I will assess my adrenaline level directly after the plunge. That’s what it’s all about, after all.  Will the adrenaline stay with me?  Can I invoke another surge of adrenaline simply by thinking about the plunge?  Will I have nightmares? Will I want to do it again?  All of this leads to the determination and efficacy of current Virtual Reality systems.  If the VR can lead your brain into releasing vast stores of adrenaline, in the same way jumping off a building, or out of an airplane (to do it right), we have arrived.  This is science.  This is important. This will affect the evolution of the human brain is ways we have yet to conceive. We are not there yet but it’s time to start taking notice. I will do so in the near future with the coming purchase of the HTC VR system.  I can’t wait.