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Summer Reissue: First Encounter with the Techno-Christ – Watching the Birth of a Star in the Oculus Rift

 

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Suspended above the sun I witnessed the creation and destruction of the stars. An astral dust condensed and formed a molten core, pulling smaller fragments of space rock into its enhanced and growing gravitational field. From behind a distant moon, an asteroid streaked through deep space, hurtling into the burgeoning planet and smashing it into a thousand scattered pieces. Soon they began again to coalesce but I was not there to witness, having been transported into a forest of dendritic branches on the edge of a neuron. It was some really trippy shit.

There’s a subset of hardcore futurists out there who believe we are currently witnessing the birth of a technological messiah through the uterine mediums of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. After a couple hours with an Oculus Rift, I think I count myself as one of them.

The Rift looks like the blacked-out ski goggles the American military straps prisoners with en-route to Guantanamo Bay. It’s hooked up to the computer via HDMI and tracked with a webcam device attached to the monitor. Comfortable straps secure the device to your head. It apparently doesn’t come with anything to help scrape your jaw off the floor after the skyscraper you’re perched upon collapses and sends you spinning to the pavement though.

The latest iteration of the Rift is the Developer’s Kit 2. It’s the last model before the Rift goes on the market in Q1 2016, and so the vast majority of games and virtual experiences available have been designed for free by indie developers. Praise be to these industrious craftsmen, for they are the pioneers of the virtual frontier.

On the eight floor of a building on Short Street I met with a few of these midwives of the singularity. They were masquerading as fourth year software engineering students in a 12-week Comp Sci course. An exercise bike sat in front of a bookcase filled with tomes like The Science of Fractal Imagery by Peitgen Saupe and G D Smith’s Numerical Solution of Partial Differential Equations. They made me feel nauseous. A motion capture camera sat atop the bookcase, aimed at the exercise bike. Both were rigged to an impressive computer tower; black steel with handles. After filling out several forms and a waiver I mounted the exercise bike, strapped on an Oculus and some headphones and started to pedal.

Tour de Tune is an exergame like Wii Fit, just way better. Imagine Guitar Hero crossed with Mario Kart in outer-space. The bike’s resistance was calibrated by the BPM of the music I selected and the holographic, techno-track adjusted accordingly to represent the difficulty. Obie Trice’s Adrenaline Rush got the heart pumping with a few heavy sections and a couple of descents. Bleed by Meshuggah turned the track into a near-vertical climb. I rode three six-minute sections, two with the Oculus and one without. Two flat whites into the day, my heart rate was a brisk 170 almost immediately.

It didn’t matter though, because the combination of visual and audio input created an immersive experience so powerful I was able to ignore the burning in my thighs and the heaving in my chest. I charged forward, strangely desperate to drive my score up into the thousands. I’m not totally sure how the scoring system operated, I just know the harder I pedaled, the faster it went up. And so I did, and that’s something that just doesn’t happen in exergames, which are generally absolute shit. There’s something about the experience which makes a mundane muscle cramp irrelevant in the exploration of a new and unmapped space.

I asked the group if this was the dawn of the singularity, if we were finally about to transcend our fleshy bonds and glide away into a virtual existence. They said no, it’s going to be a long time before it gets much better than it already is. I told them that was disappointing, that they were a little cynical compared to me. They said it was because they actually know how hard it is to get anywhere with this kind of technology. It was a fair point. But, unfettered by the obligation to actually make any of it happen, I’m free to dream.

I see a future where children learn about the genesis of life by watching it happen, where it’s possible to see a giant squid battle a sperm whale from the perspective of a barnacle. I imagine a time where travel to far regions of the universe is a matter of strapping on your goggles and hitting the couch. And, in my more paranoid moments, I wonder if it’s already here, and all I need to do is take off my goggles.


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