I've never been very impressed with virtual reality. It seems mostly useful for filling up odd columns in the nether reaches of the Sunday newspapers. [Or, indeed, in Plokta - Ed.] It always appears to contain rather more virtual and rather less reality. Rather too little reality for my taste. After all, why have virtual beer when the real stuff is in the fridge? I wasn't particularly taken with the video games where you wear a VR helmet, either. For a pound, I spent sixty seconds zapping gooks with a hopelessly inaccurate gun whilst looking very silly to observers. Followed almost immediately by an entire day of headaches and nausea.
However, I recently discovered two new forms of virtual reality. Not new in general, just new to me. I tried them both for the first time within a few hours of each other. One is a lot more engaging than the other, but rather harder to access. If you can combine the two, and then bottle the result, you will make your fortune.
The easier to get involved with was Lucy Huntzinger's Eldermoo. This is one of those sad on-line things, where various people who don't have a life chat to each other over their computers. However, this one is devoted specifically to sf and fantasy fandom, and many of the people who hang around there are Plokta readers and other cool sorts. I mean, we do have lives. Just not at 10pm on a Wednesday evening. And I discovered the great advantage of virtual alcohol when I passed round a virtual bottle of 1968 Laphroaig whilst keeping the real bottle close to hand.
Our conversations seem to cover roughly the same things that conversations at cons do. Various rooms exist for having conversations in. If you drop into the Plokta theme pub, the Moose and Merkin, you will instantly spot the moose head on the wall, but it may take you slightly longer to make the acquaintance of the merkin. In a bat-infested attic, Dr. Plokta has constructed a working set of Orbital Mind Control Lasers. Use them carefully. The Ansible Mothership is littered with an enormous number of Hugos. Of course, if you think such wallpaper is frivolous and unnecessary, it's easy to ignore, but most of us seem to quite like it.
People do ask what the attraction of Eldermoo is. To tell the truth, it's just another way to talk with other fans. If you find you have enough of this already, then it probably doesn't offer you anything new. However, if you secretly hanker after a lifestyle that incorporates more conventions and fewer nights in front of the telly, then it might suit you quite well.
Eldermoo is open to all; but like other online pursuits, it requires that you have the basic equipment to go online. The other form of virtual reality I tried requires no equipment whatsoever, apart from your brain. For many years I've been vaguely fascinated by the idea of lucid dreaming. The notion of being able to control the direction of your dream, and to continue dreaming whilst remaining conscious that you are dreaming, is such a very cool idea that there are even gadgets sold which purport to help you do it.
I saw an ad for such a gadget in a magazine. It argued that the trick is to realise that you are dreaming. I don't agree; the trick is to realise you are dreaming and then not wake up. Much harder. However, the ad went on to describe how the device worked. It was a mask with flashing lights; whenever you notice flashing lights, you ask yourself "Am I dreaming?" and do a reality check. Eventually you train yourself to notice flashing lights in your dreams and lo and behold, start lucid dreaming. The ad failed to mention how much the gadget cost, and I promptly forgot about it.
But then a few weeks later, I was dreaming, only a few hours after trying Eldermoo for the first time. I'd fallen asleep with the radio on, during the breakfast show, and my dream started to contain timechecks. I was late for something. I started to think about the way in which time had passed, and it didn't make sense; and I suddenly realised I was dreaming. And then I thought, oh, well, maybe I can avoid waking up, and then I'll be lucid dreaming, and that would be cool. Suddenly my dream world shifted. All my senses were fully engaged with the dream and I was completely conscious. My mind was as drenched in sounds, feelings and colour as if I was in the real world. Virtual reality indeed. The nearest equivalent I can think of would be the feeling of being wrenched into another dimension which appears in so much bad sf. I was lucid dreaming, and I could do anything.
Or could I? I can't tell. I mean, perhaps I was only dreaming that I could fully direct the dream, and in fact I was no more lucid than usual. Since then, I've have half a dozen lucid dreams, all fairly short. My argument that I know it's different from ordinary dreams is that old reality check. In reality, you're always certain you're not dreaming. And when you're dreaming, you're never sure. But when I've had the lucid dreams, I've been certain I was lucid dreaming. When I've woken, the moment of disorientation I usually experience on waking from a dream wasn't there, because I knew I was dreaming so expected to wake. Although on one occasion, my sub-conscious reasserted itself; I "woke up" only to find myself in another dream.
So, there I was, in virtual reality, able to direct my dream and do whatever I wanted. The world was more truly my oyster than usual. I'd like to be able to tell you how I've been spending these valuable moments of lucid dreaming. Setting the world to rights? Exploring alien landscapes? Investigating the deeper recesses of my subconscious soul? Unfortunately not. "Either bonking or eating chocolate," suggests Dr. Plokta. Well, I'm afraid chocolate never got a look in. So either my conscious mind is sleazier than I thought, or I only have the perception of conscious thought in my lucid dreams. But then, perhaps I only have the perception of conscious thought in my daily life?
So I fell to thinking. It would be brilliant to get these working together. The problem with Eldermoo is that it's insufficiently real; all that is being provided is conversation in a disjointed and rethreaded form. The problem with lucid dreaming is that it's essentially a solo activity; I can't see a clear way to join up and produce shared dreaming, shared experiences, interaction. But I'd like a reality as intense as the lucid dreaming to apply to the virtual conversations, virtual Laphraoig, and assorted other virtual activity, of Eldermoo, and it's just not possible yet. When it is, I'll be there.
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