First Words — 23 April 2020
Our current experiment with virtual reality will not replace real thing | Commentary

By Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

I don’t mean to brag, but I have been to a grocery store. And to an art gallery. And to a wine cave, long before Pete Buttigieg made it wrong, so wrong, to be in a wine cave.

I don’t mean to brag, but I have been on a boat, too. And behind the wheel of a sports car. And to parties with a lot of famous people you’d probably know if I dropped their names – but who didn’t know me.

Of course, that was in The Before Time, children. Way back in February 2020. Long before many of you were even bored.

Now, I go to virtual grocery stores alone. And wander online art galleries. And watch other people on screens drink wine in cyber wine caves. And get invited to parties on Facebook Live – where famous people you’d probably know if I dropped their names still don’t know who I am.

It’s not the same. Really. (Except the not knowing who I am part.)

Because I am here to tell you, based on my initial experiences in this coronavirus crisis, that the virtual reality experience is never going to replace the real thing.

Oh, you may sit now in your swivel chair in front of your carefully curated home office backdrop (is that your ninth-grade chess trophy back there on the shelf?), interacting virtually with work colleagues on a screen that looks like the set of the old “Hollywood Squares” tic-tac-toe game show (“I’ll take the VP of Advertising to block, Peter!”), and think, wait, I risked my real life each day on I-95 just to be in the same building with these people? Why, I could have been interacting virtually at home all along with these people.

People who’ve probably never even heard of “Hollywood Squares.” People who don’t even know who I am. Forget pants, people who aren’t even wearing clothes? Wait, checking to see if I’m in the right Zoom meeting.

I’m being told that, apparently, I am not in the right Zoom meeting.

Nobody’s ever going to prefer these virtual experiences to the real thing, you’d think – and you’d be right. Even if they get to see, in an oh-so-carefully curated manner, that you were once chess champion of the whole ninth grade.

Seeing your work colleagues on a virtual tic-tac-toe screen will never replace seeing your work colleagues in the real world. If for no other reason, so you can report them directly to HR for not wearing pants. And possibly clothes. And for not knowing who you are.

But there are so many people and businesses and places offering virtual experiences now. Not just grocery stores and art galleries and wine caves, but political candidates (you know who) and Miami Dolphins Draft Day parties and “Tiger King.” Wait, checking to see if “Tiger King” is technically more a surreal than virtual experience.

It is.

All of them are throwing up big ideas now – like Joe Exotic tigers coughing up softball-sized fringe-jacket fur balls – to see what sticks on these cyber walls. Ideas that maybe we don’t need to be doing a lot of things we used to do in person in person anymore. Ideas that maybe we’d actually prefer a more virtual world.

Well, and I believe I can say the following with some authority, based on my experience as chess champion of the whole ninth grade:

Naw. Don’t think so. At least I hope not.

“Why is the real experience better?” writes Janna Thompson, professor of philosophy at La Trobe University, in The Conversation, a network of news stories written by academics and researchers. “One answer is that the emotions you feel when you have a virtual experience are not as valuable. When you actually see Niagara Falls, especially if you get up close, you feel awe and even fear in the face of an overpowering force of nature. Being in the presence of something that causes you these feelings is part of the pleasure.”

We will get through this, some day. We’ll look back, laugh over a 2016 Cabernet (the good one, the one that got Pete Buttigieg in trouble), and think about what worked and what didn’t work AAT. (After All This). And, when we do, I’m guessing we’re going to make a beeline back to reality from the virtual world.

We will want to go back to work and interact with our work colleagues. We will want to go back to school and see our friends and teachers. We will want to watch “Tiger King” and “Ozark’’ and “Hollywood Squares’’ in the time in between, instead of all the time, again.

Because I know now, based on my initial experiences, that nothing will ever replace the pleasure of finding my own ginger in the produce bin at the grocery store, instead of the ginger ale my Virtual Shopper keeps asking me to approve in my Instacart as a replacement. Nothing will ever replace the awe of getting close to “Cape Cod Pier” at the NSU Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale – so close I can see the master’s brushstrokes – until my WiFi pixelates Williams Glackens into Picasso on the museum’s virtual tour. And nothing will ever replace the happiness of opening a fine bottle of 2016 Cabernet, elbow to elbow in post-coronavirus distanced camaraderie, with people in The Real world who know who I am. (Mostly.)

It may not be our reality, just yet. But I can virtually taste it.

-mgauert@cityandshore.com

PHOTO: Don Overly and his wife, Mardel, on screen, take part in a live virtual wine tasting with Bouchaine Vineyards winemaker and general manager Chris Kajani, left, and sales director Brian Allard in Napa, Calif. So close (you can almost taste it) but so far. (Eric Risberg/AP)

 

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