Virtual reality, in theory, should be able to take you anywhere. Slap on some goggles and voila! You’re in Paris, or Beijing, or on Mars.
You can see the irony, then, in meeting up with a bunch of virtual reality geeks and hopping on a six-hour bus ride to meet other virtual reality geeks hundreds of miles away. On one muggy Sunday morning in March, I did just that with two dozen enthusiasts, on a bus bound for the VR holy land: Los Angeles.
The “VR Bus” was chartered by a Bay Area meetup group, Silicon Valley Virtual Reality, and took passengers from Millbrae and Mountain View, Calif., to a daylong expo hosted by another meetup group, Virtual Reality Los Angeles.
Ride along in the video below:
The bus riders were a cross section of the tech demographic of mostly white and Asian men, and wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in Silicon Valley. They were mostly young with neat, short hair, with a sprinkle of a few graying dudes who would’ve fit in just as well at a Grateful Dead concert. I had broken out my favorite Legend of Zelda t-shirt (for the record, I own four), which I suspected would be a great conversation starter. I was right.
This unassuming crowd could very well be full of prophets, I considered. Here on this clean but drab bus, they opened up about the first wave of VR and all the revolutionary implications the technology might bring: Mind-blowing movies, more immersive games, Skype killers, virtual offices that would make the real things obsolete and social networks that feel as intimate as real life. The hardware and platform companies — Facebook, Sony, Samsung, HTC, Valve — are about to deluge the market with VR headsets, and without the people on this bus figuring out how to make it sexy and spreading the word, VR will be little more than a passing fad.
So many questions remain unanswered about how consumers will take to this latest incarnation of an old idea. But for the true believers on the bus, it’s all but certain that those doubts will be satisfyingly resolved in time. To them, VR will be as significant as the personal computer or the mobile phone.
Meetups for VR developers like the one I headed to can be found in nearly every tech-savvy metro area these days. But VRLA’s quarterly expos are among the elite group that feel “serious.” Big-name sponsors like AMD, Google and Sony are drawn to the hundreds of attendees converging on one spot to share their latest developments.
“The creative mecca of VR is, for the most part, coming out of LA,” said Cris Miranda, the host of the Enter VR podcast. “All the movie and film industry people, they realize where this is going.”
SVVR organizer Karl Krantz said he and his co-organizer Nana Usui had kicked around the idea of a one-day bus trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles since April 2014. Their goal is to unite a community of developers and content creators who all want the same thing: Successful VR.
Since this VR gathering required everyone to actually show up in the flesh, I asked everyone if that was better than being alone in a room with goggles strapped to their heads. Fortunately, the bus riders were happy to indulge me — both because Krantz and Usui had the foresight to load up the bus with several boxes of coffee and donuts, and because there were few power outlets and no Wi-Fi. As one rider remarked: “We’re forced to talk to each other like primates.”
Krantz, who has a background in telepresence, expects that virtual avatars will one day be sophisticated enough to replace events like VRLA or his own group’s expo, the SVVR Conference. But that day is “years” away, he said.
Aboard the bus, several riders acknowledged the irony of a corporeal gathering to celebrate virtual reality, but drew a line between social interactions in the real world and virtual space. AlldotVR CEO Roberto Zimmerman, who described himself as a “child of the 70s,” said he hoped that divide endures.
“I love to feel the heat of the sun and smell my own suntan lotion,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I think that virtual reality’s going to eventually start capturing some of those elements, but there’s something cool about you and I, with our soft drinks, cutting through the grass at Coachella — ‘Oh, dude, what’s up?’ and ‘Oh, I met you on that bus in 2015! Wasn’t that cool?'”
“Now, my daughter, who was born last year, in 10 years may not care,” he added. “I hope she cares about, like, interacting with human beings in real time. But maybe for her it’s gonna be just, fine.”
To some people, the idea of future generations preferring virtual reality to human contact may sound like a dystopian nightmare. A virtual reality enthusiast named Guy, who asked that I not use his last name, said that although public acceptance of big technological shifts can be tricky, some common habits today would have seemed shocking in the recent past.
“Someone tells you, ‘Yeah, I went on Facebook’ or ‘I sent an email’ or ‘I ordered tickets online,’ that’s normal now,” Guy said. “In the ’90s, that would’ve been like, ‘You what? What do you mean you ordered your tickets online? I’m not going to hang out with my friends on some stupid website! I’m gonna give ’em a call, I’m gonna hang out with them.’ Now it’s: ‘Yeah, you could do that. But this is faster.'”
Perhaps the most optimistic about virtual reality’s effect on socializing was HYVR CEO Jon Oakes, who said using virtual chat applications like VRchat or Altspace — which simulate being in a room with someone who may actually be thousands of miles away — can make people nicer than they otherwise would be online.
“If you’re chatting with somebody in VR, you get reminded in a palpable sense that you’re talking to another human being. And you behave,” Oakes said. “Yes, there’s going to be trolls, but the thing VR might do is get us to reconnect at a physical, interpersonal level and have genuine relationships, and it might make meetups even more popular.”
Even if you’ve never been to a virtual reality meetup, you can probably picture the scene at the VRLA expo: Lines of people taking turns to put various contraptions on their heads. Those same people gesturing, spinning and ducking, oblivious to the show floor around them. Countless groups of people break off into corners and around tables to chat. In one corner, Google was distributing to any passers-by free copies of its cheap Cardboard VR kits, which hold smartphones in place as users look through lenses at VR-ready mobile apps.
When I checked in at WEVR’s booth for a demo of the HTC Vive, tempers were running hot. Apparently, even attendees who had RSVP’d for a demo online (as I had) were being turned away due to overwhelming demand.
“I bought a fucking ticket just for this,” the person in front of me yelled at the startled booth staffer behind the desk. “Just. For. This!”
After angry man-child was out of earshot, I tried to present a more polite, gentle face and was cheerfully encouraged to sign up on the demo wait-list in case a spot opened.
“So long as you don’t talk to me like that …” the booth staffer said. The wait-list was already more than 40 names long by the time I signed it, and my phone never rang. C’est la VR!
The man-child might not have presented a good look, but it’s emblematic of just how hungry the VR community is right now. VRLA organizer Cosmo Scharf likened the zeal to that which greeted the advent of the first personal computers, citing an interview Steve Jobs gave to Playboy in 1985.
“The interviewer asked him, like, ‘What are you going to do with a computer?'” Scharf said. “And [Jobs] was like, ‘I don’t know. But we’re making them.’ Right now, it’s very similar. We have this new technology and everyone’s asking, ‘What are we going to do with VR?’ We have some answers today, but we won’t truly know what’s possible with VR until we get there.”
HYVR’s Oakes, who first took an interest in virtual reality in the ’90s while working at CompuServe, said the technology’s unfulfilled promise back then deferred a lot of dreams that have only reawakened in the past few years. He also likened the current VR scene to the early days of computers.
“I wasn’t really involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, back in the ’70s, I was too young for that, but it feels like that,” Oakes said. “We want VR to happen. We want it to happen so bad … It’s cult-like in its fervor for how much we want to have this happen.”
After a marathon day of bus riding, networking and VR demo-trying, the Silicon Valley crew piled back onto the VR bus at 6 pm. One hungry rider wisely grabbed McDonalds before boarding, but for everyone else, the bus made a pit stop at In-N-Out Burger a couple hours later.
Following dinner, as the bus coasted straight up I-5, the field trip took a sudden left turn into summer camp territory. Riders who stayed awake broke into teams of five to play a survival simulation game. Each group had to imagine they had survived a plane crash, and rank from most important to least important what items from a list of limited resources — such as a can of Crisco, a compass and a copy of E.T. for the Atari 2600 — would help them the most.
“Do we want to say E.T. is the last one?” one rider asked his teammates.
“Yeah, that seems pretty good,” another replied.
Just like real life. Every group made the same choice, to rank E.T. last. Even in a world of make-believe, no one wants to risk losing.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.