One man’s endless hunt for a virtual reality dopamine rush
Recently, on a Thursday night at the City Life Community Center in Missoula, MT, Wolf Heffelfinger played laser tag.
Wearing a pair of heavy goggles, he swung around the gym, firing fake laser guns with both hands. It wasn’t that different from any other laser tag game except that it played in virtual reality.
As he and a friend ran through the gym, he saw himself running through the neon-lit hallways of a spaceship. His friend too. With virtual reality glasses attached to their eyes, they couldn’t see each other. But they could continue in an imaginary world.
For 48-year-old musician, entrepreneur and free-spirited Mr. Heffelfinger, gaming was another step in a ten-year obsession with virtual reality. Since the arrival of the flagship Oculus headset in 2013, it has played virtual reality games, watched movies, visited faraway lands and assumed new identities.
He sees his virtual adventures as a relentless search for the dopamine rush that comes when technology takes him to a new place. When it reaches the limit of what technology can do, the precipitation decreases. He put his many headsets on the shelf, where they sat for months. But when the advances come, he comes back in force.
Mr. Heffelfinger’s intermittent preoccupation syncs with the tech industry’s intermittent affair with virtual reality, investing billions in a concept that has been around for several years just steps to go mainstream without really getting there.
Today, virtual reality technology is perhaps one step closer to a mass market, with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other well-known executives announcing the arrival of the “metaverse” – a digital world where people can communicate through virtual reality and other new and yet-to-be-invented technologies – and repeated rumors that Apple is getting into the mix.
However, the question arises as to whether virtual reality is really ready for mainstream consumers. Over the years, the improvements have never lived up to expectations. It’s as if science fiction – decades of VR novels, movies, and television – has prepared people for perpetual disappointment.
“I want this to be a part of my life, and I still think it will be,” said Heffelfinger. “But the dream always ends.”
As Mr. Heffelfinger prepared for his laser game at the Missoula Community Center, a group of teenagers were playing paintball one floor down. It was largely the same game: glasses, fake pistols, and chasing around a gymnasium. But the teenagers stayed in the real world.
When asked why he didn’t just sign up for an old-school paintball game, Mr. Heffelfinger said playing in a sci-fi world makes all the difference. He liked to be taken away. “I can get into the movie,” he said.
He might even be a different person. As he and his friend John Brownell kicked off the game, called Space Pirate Arena, Mr. Heffelfinger chose a big, beefy and ostensibly male avatar clad in camouflage. Mr. Brownell chose one that looked a lot like actress Angelina Jolie. Mr. Heffelfinger imagined himself in a dystopian world.
“An episode of ‘Black Mirror’ crossed my mind, where these two guys fall in love with each other in VR choosing different avatars,” he said, referring to a series of science fiction on Netflix. “I don’t think he realized the effect it had on me.”
Mr. Heffelfinger craves what is called lucid dreaming. He’s previously directed a short film about the elusive phenomenon where dreams are lived with full awareness – much like the extremely detailed and completely compelling dreams of Hollywood movies like “Inception.” and “Vanilla Sky”.
When he discovered virtual reality, he realized that it had the same feeling. “After a while your brain plays a trick on you,” he said. “You believe you are really there. “
He first tried out the Oculus at an office party when it was just a software developer test kit and immediately ordered one of his own. The experiences were short, simple, and cartoonish: a trip to the top of a skyscraper or a flight in a space capsule. But after Facebook acquired the start-up that launched the headset and pumped millions of dollars into the tech, other companies followed suit and the possibilities widened.
Mr. Heffelfinger visited Egyptian pyramids. He watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in virtual reality while suspended in a floating tank. He took a local police detective through a virtual recreation of Missoula, sewn from high definition photos, and they came to see technology as a way to investigate a crime scene without being there. Sometimes on cloudy Montana days he would disappear into virtual reality just to see the sun.
“The nature of these fantastic worlds is that they supply dopamine to our brain’s reward pathways,” said Anna Lembke, a Stanford University psychiatrist and author of “Dopamine Nation,” an exploration of drug addiction in the modern world. “They carry a potential for dependence.”
But as with other addictions, tolerances develop. Reaching dopamine level becomes more difficult.
Mr. Heffelfinger grew weary of every new helmet. The experiments were repetitive. He couldn’t move as freely as he wanted. He couldn’t really connect with other people. Virtual reality couldn’t quite match the vitality of the real world, and sometimes it made him sick.
He transformed a helmet into a plant holder and another into a tie he wore on his walks in the mountains of Montana. “It turns out that a walk outside is a lot more fun,” he said.
But he was still buying another pair of glasses. Sometimes he would spend hundreds of dollars on headsets for friends, hoping they would join him in VR. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he saw technology as an ideal antidote to quarantine, and for a while it was. He could mingle with friends and strangers at an ethereal gathering place called AltspaceVR.
He visited a virtual re-enactment of Burning Man, the annual bohemian art festival, with a friend. As they strolled through desert campsites, among art installations, sculptures, and swollen cars and trucks, Mr. Heffelfinger had the unpleasant feeling that he, a married man, was on a date with someone. who was not his wife.
“We had hung out a million times in real life, and it never felt like a date,” he said. “She looks a lot prettier in VR.”
He later told his wife about what had happened and, to redeem himself, he bought her a headset and invited her into virtual reality. As they entered a virtual cocktail bar, he heard the voice of the woman he had taken to Burning Man, and she approached them from across the room.
“Can’t we go anywhere without one of your females showing up?” His wife said, before her avatar retreated away and became limp. She had taken off her helmet.
It was a bizarre and unexpected mix of the real and the virtual. In the past, the three of them had spent time together in the real world. He knew it wouldn’t happen again.
Mr. Heffelfinger soon put his helmet away. His Oculus was sitting in a green bin above his sauna. But a few months later, he came across a video on Space Pirate Arena.
“I was disgusted with VR,” he said. “But now I’m back.”
He’ll probably be bored again. Like many people who use technology, he believes it will be many years before it becomes an unshakeable part of everyday life. And he admits that no matter how good the tech is, he’s hesitant to spend too much time on it.
“I love getting into virtual reality,” he said. “But I still want to go out.”