When I was 11 years old, my uncle took my brother and I to Dave and Buster’s on the dingy outskirts of center city Philadelphia in close proximity to a neighborhood known as Fishtown. The arcade had become a fixture in the minds of my brother and I.
It wasn’t just the scale of Dave and Buster’s that captured our spirits but the breadth of experiences. Visions of large-scale racing games networked twelve at a time alongside both Time Crisis cabinets took our juvenile breath away. But all of this was preamble to the moment when Dave and Buster (I envision them doing this by hand, in person) installed a virtual reality rig.
I don’t remember the name but I remember the price: $5 per round, an astronomical sum that represented a very real investment on the part of my uncle. I wanted to make him proud. They strapped me in, a headset was lowered on to my head and a plastic gun was handed to me from parts unknown.
The ensuing experience was nasty, brutish and short. I fired several polygon-shaped objects at another polygon-shaped object and that was that. Dejected, I rejoined my brother and uncle for hot wings and a soda.
It would be another twenty years before I’d interact with virtual reality again. It’s very much back in vogue, and it struck us as a perfect opportunity to revisit the subject, if only to redeem my uncle’s five dollars.
We’ve decided to take a long view in both directions. By examining VR’s past, from the cave paintings to the Victorian era, we get a glimpse of what might await us in our future: galleried artists revelling in a new medium, the possible moral panic around addiction, and the inevitability of VR-enabled warfare. VR never received a public and visible assessment in its earlier inceptions. It was not a question of if we would lose ourselves in a digital universe; it was a question when. We believe that day is here.
And to be fair, people said that VR had arrived many, many years ago—and were totally wrong. So it’s fortunate that our position has been buoyed by Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift for two billion dollars just this year. (It is worth noting that we started this issue before that sale.)
Nonetheless, in the hopes that our virtual reality issue stands the test of time, we hope $2 billion is still a considerable sum of money in whatever era you’re reading this issue. If VR proves to be a fool’s errand yet again, I patiently ask that you wait another twenty years for our next attempt. We can meet at Dave and Buster’s to talk through the exchange in person.