It’ll soon have been a year since I got my Oculus Rift and joined the small but growing ranks of people who don’t care how stupid they look wearing VR goggles. Even after all that time, and hours spent exploring a virtual reality that thankfully doesn’t look anything like The Lawnmower Man, the tech still can leave me awestruck, and the latest instance of this is when I finally checked out Google Earth VR (which doesn’t officially work with Oculus Rift, but hey, the internet isn’t just full of porn and cat videos, it’s also where you’re likely to find a solution for each and every one of your tech problems.)
One of the first things I did: I went home.
Okay, no: first thing I did was be a virtual tourist, as one does.
I’ve heard people scoff at both the idea of virtual reality and Google Earth: if you want to inhabit an amazing space with full immersion, why not just go outside? The framerate and resolution are better, and as a bonus you don’t have to pay hundreds of simoleons for the privilege. All of these are true, and yet they miss the point quite spectacularly. For me, one of the fascinating things about Google Earth is that they’ve got, well, the entire planet in there. It’s not equally detailed everywhere, but you can fly from London to Paris to Rome to Sydney to San Francisco within a minute and they’re all not just recognisable, you can check out all the landmarks and buildings. The effect is amplified in VR: it’s like you’re a bird – or, perhaps more accurately, a drone, though one of the harmless, non-bombing sort – floating over a miniature version of the world that just goes on and on and on. As long as you stay at a respectful distance, everything looks eerily realistic, especially if these are places you know: the city where you spent your last holiday, for instance… or the place where you grew up.
That’s when my exploration of a virtual earth became something other, something a bit weirder, than just the kind of technical marvel that we can quickly come to take for granted these days. Gesticulating with my Oculus Touch controllers (again, one price for enjoying cool tech is looking like an absolute idiot while doing it), I zoomed over to the village where I spent most of my childhood, hovering above the familiar road down to the street where I used to live and the house my parents built in 1980. My dad sold it a couple of years ago, and I haven’t lived there in decades, but most of the time when I dream of being somewhere I consider home, the dream home is a variation of that house. Looking at it in Google Earth VR felt almost uncanny: on the one hand, the place is familiar, the layout of the street, the garage and garden and stream, on the other it’s a tiny facsimile compared to which you’re the size of a giant, which feels like you’re as unreal as it is. It’s also a jump back in time: I don’t know how current Google’s image data is, but it’s at least conceivable that the house I was looking at from my bird’s-eye view was for all intents and purposes the one my dad used to live in, that the 3D model and textures were a few years old. (I doubt that Google scans small Swiss villages more often than that.) Perhaps the Google car with its 360° cameras had missed him by just a few minutes.
Next up: our current home, a flat in a building ten minutes away from the centre of the capital. Considering that I’m not a bird, it’s amazing how familiar the world looks from what should be an unfamiliar perspective: zooming out, heading west, looking for that bend in the river, and zooming in again, I was soon looking at the right house. And at that point it’s easy to be tempted by a flight of fancy: I’m in my room, looking at our house in VR, so if I zoom in on the balcony, would I find a little computer model of myself wearing cybergoggles in my room, looking at our house in VR, so if I zoom in on the balcony–
— is it virtual turtles all the way down?
Of course, when I did zoom in on that balcony, the world changed, not gradually, but all of a sudden, from pretty much photorealistic to… It’s difficult to put into words what Google Earth looks like when you zoom in. It looks like a lumpen, misshapen, vague version of the world, just good enough to fool you if you’re a distance away and don’t look too closely, if you’re squinting or the world is still blurry after you’ve just woken up. Except the world stays blurry and only becomes more so the closer you get. What was utterly familiar one moment is quite grotesque the next.
While it would of course be cool if Google Earth could keep up the illusion, this tension between realism and strangeness is actually quite fascinating, reminding you that what you’re looking at is virtual – and while I’m sure that in a few years both VR and Google Earth will be able to fake reality with much higher fidelity, I like that weirdness. Having virtual reality immerse you in an imitation of actual reality is cool, not least from a technical level, but the glitches and weirdness, the not-quite-there-yet effect it has at this stage, sparks off my imagination more than photorealism would. Home, as much as its uncanny almost-twin, these aren’t places that require high pixel counts and ultra-HD resolutions. The image projected on my retina is just a means to an end – my mind will, and should, take the final few steps.