The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Thematic: The Varieties of Travel Experience

All Aboard for Virtual Utopia?

The All-too-Human Virtual Traveler

William Hasselberger

Jess Rodriguez/Alamy Stock Photo.

With his protruding visor, destined to become miniaturized, like everything else, and replaced in the end by brain implants, the frequenter of virtual reality (also called augmented reality) is a direct descendant of the tourist who goes looking for extreme experiences.

—Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present

Humans are embodied animals, agents of flesh and blood, perpetually in motion. Except in sleep, death, or extreme forms of disability, we are “self-movers” (auto-matos), to use Aristotle’s phrase for the essential nature of living beings.

But things are changing. It is old news that adults now spend ever-increasing amounts of time barely moving while they “interface,” via small finger motions, clicks, and swipes, with digital content on screens. Recent technological advances in two related fields—virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) and artificial intelligence (AI)—presage an even more profound transformation as we humans migrate away from a physical and natural world experienced by our movements through it into immersive computer-generated virtual realms presented to us via headsets, wearables, and, eventually, computer-brain interfaces.

Within days of the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro “mixed reality” headset, the videos went viral: people wearing bulky Vision Pro headsets, spotted on subway trains, park benches, and street corners. The impression is surreal. On the one hand, VR/AR users occupy the same physical world as the rest of us. On the other, they are clearly “elsewhere,” making gestures incomprehensible from the outside, moving in the abstract, almost ghostly space of digital solitude.

Traditional VR aims to replace the user’s sensory experience (for now, mainly visual and auditory) with computer-generated content, ideally to achieve full conscious “immersion” in the digital environment. Apple claims that the Vision Pro not only does VR but also “seamlessly blends digital content with your physical space,” thereby enabling AR “spatial computing.” The headset combines internal cameras to track the micromovements of our eyes and external cameras to record and reproduce the visual scene around us, now “augmented” by superimposed digital content. The point of VR/AR, says Apple, is to enable you to “do the things you love in ways never before possible.” These include controlling software with motions of the eyes and hands, meeting with others virtually, watching movies and sports, and reliving digitally recorded memories.11x“Vision Pro: Watch the Guided Tour,” Apple, accessed March 26, 2024, https://www.apple.com/apple-vision-pro/. Apple CEO Tim Cook predicts that “a significant portion of the population of developed countries, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day, it will become that much a part of you.”22xQuoted in Oscar Raymundo, “Tim Cook: Augmented Reality Will Be an Essential Part of Your Daily Life, Like the iPhone,” Macworld, October 3, 2016, https://www.macworld.com/article/228893/tim-cook-augmented-reality-will-be-an-essential-part-of-your-daily-life-like-the-iphone.html. The “thought leaders” seem to agree: Scores of tech analysts, futurists, and TED Talks presenters confidently affirm that VR/AR will “shape the human future” and “reform the human experience.”33xSee, e.g., Tiffany Lam, “How Immersive Technologies (AR/VR) Will Reform the Human Experience” [video], TEDxQueensU, April 23, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi97-DAcGMk.

Meta Platforms, the tech conglomerate that emerged from Facebook, envisions a future in which humans spend long hours in an immersive VR environment, “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” As Mark Zuckerberg promises, in Meta’s “metaverse,” accessible through its Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, “you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up. This will open up more opportunity no matter where you live. You’ll be able to spend more time on what matters to you, cut down time in traffic, and reduce your carbon footprint.”44xMark Zuckerberg, “Founder’s Letter, 2021,” Meta, October 28, 2021, https://about.fb.com/news/2021/10/founders-letter/.

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