So this is virtual reality.
A mount rests on the crown of my head and a small video screen attached to it drops down in front of my eyes. Wires run down my back and attach the video display to a laptop that's carefully situated in an unzipped canvas backpack that weighs down my shoulders. And thick headphones cover my ears.
I'm outside a "room" constructed out of rough cloth held up by two-by-fours, about to play AR/Façade, a game devised by professors and students at Georgia Tech. I'm supposed to interact, in virtual reality, with two computer-generated characters named Trip and Grace. Steven Dow, a Tech student with shaggy hair, tells me that the couple is having marital problems and I should try to serve as an arbitrator for the bickering duo.
"What should I say?" I ask.
"Say whatever," Dow replies. "There are tons of phrases they'll say back to you."
Thousands of sentences have been programmed into the game for Trip and Grace. When I say something to them, a "wizard" – a student who's behind the cloth listening to the conversation – will type exactly what I say into a computer. The computer will then generate a phrase for Trip or Grace to say back to me. As I get ready to turn the doorknob to enter the room and start the game, a lean man with jet-black hair walks by.
"I always love watching people as they go in," says Ian Bogost, an assistant professor at Tech who is at the forefront of a new wave in video games. "It's so awkward."
He's absolutely right.
When I walk through the door, Grace appears right in front of me on the video display, and it gives the true illusion that we're standing together. She is a svelte woman with dark, cropped hair and piercing blue eyes, an animated character that is almost humanlike. Her husband walks up to join us; Trip is lanky, with sandy-colored hair. He wears a green long-sleeved shirt with drab gray pants.
The virtual room exactly mirrors the "real" room I've stepped into. There's a leather couch in the center of the room, a wooden bookshelf and a small entry table with a portable phone. Pictures of the couple adorn the walls, and wine glasses sit atop a bar. Everything looks real, and is real, except for Trip and Grace.
Grace invites me in and asks me if I'd like a drink. It takes me a second to muster the courage to speak. After all, what do you say to someone who doesn't really exist? Finally, I shyly tell Grace I'd like some white wine.
The "wizard" behind the set must have not heard me, because Trip walks over from the corner and offers me a martini.
Grace glares at Trip and then turns toward me. "Do you like the new curtains?" she asks.
"Grace, I told you they look fine," Trip snaps before I can even get a word in.
Their eyes narrow at one another, so I jump in and ask Trip how work is going.
That's a bad move.
Grace whirls around and accuses me of flirting with Trip.
"Are you kidding?" I reply. "That's ridiculous."
She shakes her head and now puts me under her glare.
I'm suddenly so nervous that my hands start to sweat. I'm being punked by a virtual character. I can hear laughter from the people inside the lab who are watching this curious interaction. From their point of view I'm talking to thin air. I feel like an idiot.
I'm flustered. Game over. I tell Trip and Grace I must go.
"Fine," Grace says as I turn and step out the door.
I take off the video head mount and headphones and see a handful of people giggling. My face is flushed. They ask how it was, and all I can do is smile sheepishly and tell them it was a really surreal experience. Bogost chuckles. He sees this every day in his work.
But for me, my entree into the reality of the future stands as one of the most unnerving experiences I've ever had.
IAN BOGOST, 30, confesses that he has 11 video-game consoles hooked up to his TV at his Decatur home.
An assistant professor at Tech's School of Literature Communication and Culture, he also is the co-founder of the intown studio Persuasive Games, where he develops games and helps define the cutting edge of a new movement in the industry. His work is lauded by fellow gaming scholars, who call it groundbreaking. "Ian has a rigorous critical attitude and it comes across in his games," says Tracy Fullerton, co-director of the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab. "But they also have his dry sense of humor. They're very ironic."
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