I’m a traveler who, one could say, is building out his portfolio. I’ve been to eighteen countries and three continents and I love to study foreign languages. When friends tell me about their travels I respond like Liz Lemon — I want to go to there.

Here’s the thing: I haven’t actually ever been to Tahiti.

Although I hope to change this, I haven’t even been to the South Pacific.

But I was able to tag along with a few surfers catching waves.

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How’s this for a candid photo?

Let me tell you this: I wish you could go to where I went.

After putting the headset on I toggled through a menu and selected the video. Well, the device has a motion detector, so “toggling” isn’t exactly the right word. You actually turn your head and set your eyes on a 2D video preview floating out in space. You just look at it.

And then the video plays. It is nothing like your normal YouTube binge watching. I began underwater.

The first thing in front of me was a school of fish and it was suddenly clear I was at the ocean floor with white sand beneath me and water clean as crystal all around me. There swam some human legs in my peripheral and then an octopus hopscotching across the bottom of the ocean.

The video was made by GoPro with cameras facing outward in every direction. The images are then digitally stitched together so when you move your head, you aren’t looking at the sand bottom anymore or the wild life swimming, you’re looking up at the gleaming light of the sun shining through the ocean’s surface.

Unlike a video game, this trip had its adventure already chosen, which didn’t stop me from paddling my arms in an attempted swim. The filmmaker essentially has a selfie stick with the multifaceted camera lenses. When he swims up, you swim up. Still, as we rose to the surface I was able to peer back and see the dance of light and shadows caused by the waves.

When we broke the surface we were on a surfboard.

In case you didn’t catch it in the photo above, I was also wearing headphones. And the sound of the waves was calming. A step up from a Sharper Image white noise machine to be sure.

Because I wasn’t actually surfing, why bother concentrating on the wave coming in? I had my eyes locked on the white strand of beach, the mountains all around. The other surfers, and all of them beautiful, were laying on their stomachs on top the surf boards, looking over their shoulders. They began to paddle.

It’s good fun to go along for the ride and not have to do much work. But in comparison to the way video watching has engaged people since the motion picture’s invention, perhaps the new media options require more engagement from the viewer.

This weekend’s issue of the Wall Street Journal wrote about how Hollywood directors see VR working into their projects. Erich Schwartzel writes,

“A character might point behind you, for example, prompting you to turn toward an approaching villain. But usually … it’s like a dinner party: You end up turning toward whoever’s talking.”

Watching television or a movie doesn’t require you to follow a story in the same way as watching a play or reading a novel. The director pans for you. And all of these media are remarkably different from watching a short film with a virtual reality headset on. If you don’t turn to the person speaking, you miss out.

This makes virtual reality seem pretty great. Alternatively, you could just wander through the movie like I did in Tahiti, and admire the beautiful scenery. Liberal Arts college professors who are teaching a film appreciation class may end up simply instructing their students to pay attention.

But I was fascinated to hear about the other videos GoPro was making for VR technology. Chefs in their kitchens slamming down knives and bustling to the next order. There was one of an artist paining a mural with time-lapsed cameras inside a globe-shaped studio. If you looked over your shoulder you’d see the artist appear  again, in several places at once, as he howled around to his work.

As a traveler and a poet, believe me when I say I am perfectly a-okay with reality qua reality. However, I do think of T.S. Eliot’s line in Four Quartets: “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” The developments with VR technology offer a set of philosophical questions worth asking. Will VR edify us, and augment the reality we can bear? Or will the technology assuage us with beautiful alternatives, such as what we see in television?

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I’m interested in hearing your opinions.

 

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