Hey all, Joe here. This is my first time writing for S.N.O.T. Hope I can set the table well.
By now, we’ve all adapted to the brave new world of indoors and settled into our new reality at the intersection of solitude and recluse, where the whole planet has been relocated. In fact, since we’ve been here for so long, let’s talk about our dwellings a little bit more.
Chances are you’ve turned your house upside down while in quarantine. I’ve done the same. Boredom, curiosity, and the inescapable “now where is that high school yearbook?” has led to a worldwide house cleaning craze (we’ve also been making a lot of bread).
Digging through the closets and dressers of my bedroom, the ottomans and storage bins of our living room, and the enclaves of our basement are a few of the activities I’ve taken joy in while sheltered with my family during quarantine. I’ve personally rediscovered some old Pirates baseball cards, replayed pretty much every board game in the house with my sister and parents (love me some Monopoly), and hooked up the old Nintendo 64 that I played religiously as a kid.
But I’ve not only poked around my old house, I also opened up my old laptop to see what I had written on there and glanced at some old social media posts, wandering back to those simpler times. I even went on Newgrounds to play some old flash games and goofed around on Club Penguin with a childhood friend. A lot of these websites have gone through several updates and overhauls, but it all still feels vaguely familiar. It’s funny; walking down a virtual memory lane feels less like a road trip and more like a stroll through your childhood home, now occupied by a new family. Some things are familiar, some are new. Some things you remember, others you don’t, and the new furniture makes the house look weird. But, oh would you look at that, there’s the mark in the wall I made when moving around furniture; there’s the spot in the backyard where my friends and I would always race each other; there’s the sun shining through the dining room window and right in my eye at 6:00 pm. It’s as if there was an attempt to redress this old place and make it feel new and different, but it’s comfortable, old personality still shines through.
Ultimately, this leads to what I’ve been musing about aimlessly for the past few weeks: intimacy with a personal dwelling and how that intimacy is translating to the virtual world. We all have personal, intimate connections with objects in our house, now more than ever. But playing around on old websites, drinking with friends on FaceTime calls instead of meeting in person, and winding down by scrolling through websites I now use daily has led to a profound realization that this intimacy, in some contexts, can be fully translated through the conduits of the internet. The physical objects I once believed were needed to develop this sort of homey relationship are now coupled with completely virtual landscapes. It’s not a perfect timeline of improved simulation; you need look no further than television for a public example of the struggle with this real/virtual mixed environment, as nearly every program or event being awkwardly hosted via webcam recording or Zoom call with a virtual audience attending. But in other facets, like old virtual world sites and now virtual reality, that intimacy is there. It’s not there yet in some contexts, but it’s really close in others.
The even crazier thing is the virtual world is beginning to literally imitate those physical constructs, to a point that they are almost indistinguishable. I found a YouTube video by Jacob Geller analyzing this concept through the lens of groundbreaking technology in a VR game. This new technology, called liquid shader, gives bottles and cans within the game the appearance of containing actual liquid, creating another layer of simulation that can easily trick us into thinking it’s reality. You can now pick a bottle of vodka and toss it between each hand while watching the alcohol inside splash around. Then you might throw it across the room as hard as you can and watch it explode once it hits the ground. Virtual Reality is the poster boy of physical intimacy with nonexistent objects, and with games like VRChat, AltspaceVR, and now Half-Life: Alyx, it’s not hard to see why. Things are only getting weirder from here.
This isn’t the only way the virtual world has been inching towards fully meshing with reality. As illustrated in these virtual museums (The Bird Museum, VOMA) I discovered during quarantine, or another one of Geller’s videos about “The Strange Reality of Roller Coaster Tycoon,” these virtual dwellings have been a part of life for years. Only now that I am forced to limit my real life endeavors do I realize how I associate these online locations with reality, how far we’ve come, and how much progress we’ve made in my lifetime. It will certainly be odd when I’m walking around my house with a VR headset on, trying to balance my connections with the real living space and my own virtual living space at the same time, all while trying not to trip over anything or run into a wall.
How’s your life been inside for the past several months? Have you found yourself reaching out to your computer or phone even more so than before? Or are you tuning out all of the noise, spending time doing more tangible activities like reading or cooking? Do you see increasingly realistic virtual environments as exciting, uninteresting, or frightening? Feel free to answer these questions, or not! It’s Saturday night, and it’s time to be off topic. Have a nice evening.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen it yet, Gary Larson made a few more The Far Side cartoons!
Feel free to follow me on Twitter if you want to catch me wondering aloud again: @JoeCritz