Still Here


With imminent and life-altering AI inflicting panic in our real lives, it is easy to dismiss virtual reality (VR) as a piece of niche and escapist junk used to cause chaos in an already broken and fragmented society. However, as we live in post-COVID times, it is clear that nothing ever seemed impossible. VR may appear like a far-off outlandish idea with bulky headsets and barely rendered 3D models, but in reality, it has more real applications than one thinks.

Big Tech has been slowly entering the arena with some ideas. TV and film have supplied them with some cool concepts, including Black Mirror, which did an incredible and thought-provoking episode on two closeted elderly women who both got a second chance at love by participating in a simulated reality called San Junipero, a beach town set in the 1980s, a time when HIV/AIDS was ravaging the LGBTQIA+ community in the U.S.

VR raises the age-old question of whether or not escapism is ever acceptable. After all, what would you do if you lived an entire life of being unable to be your authentic self but were given the chance to return to your past through simulation? Many would go back and try again for a different outcome, as evident by our fascination with shows and movies about time travel. But rather than risk altering the present, why not create a new reality that you could test without real-world repercussions

There is also the implication of who has access to VR and if it creates just another classist barrier for those who are houseless, intellectually disabled, or economically disadvantaged. This kind of technology could just be for the wealthy elites who want a whitewashed utopia in which they could escape from growing old or dealing with the pressures of maintaining power in a world where labor rights, climate change, and political riots happen daily, sometimes reaching a fever pitch. Even if VR is seen as a “reasonably priced” and accessible thing in the future as technology evolves, it will still be considered niche and specifically for certain groups of people, not for everyone.

VR is not inherently immoral. After all, current headsets boomed in popularity during the lockdown periods of the pandemic, allowing people to venture out to new worlds without stepping out of their houses. For a time, VR proved that it is not entirely isolationist. Meta’s Horizon Worlds, for example, created ways for those placed under COVID lockdown to hang out with their friends again or meet new people online. Entry into Zuckerberg’s VR universe allowed consumers a respite from the state of the world, where watching movies and attending events together – albeit virtually – were the norm again.

For travel, there are ways to upgrade or enhance your overall experience. For example, travelers could check out a 360 view of their hotel room or destinations beforehand, creating excitement for their trip. History tourism also found a second life through VR and augmented reality (AR), as software engines are endlessly perfecting the replication and spectacle of sought-after destinations from places and time periods believed to be long gone.

Running away to a perfect destination, virtually or otherwise, does not solve our problems.

While I never participated in any VR games or metaverses, I have done my fair share of traveling to where it felt like I might as well have been in another universe. I remember the week I spent in Hawaii for my cousin’s wedding when I felt like a completely different person. Seeing old and new faces in an idyllic atmosphere allowed me to escape in ways that I could never imagine for myself. Having that tranquil experience to break away from the stresses of life informed my understanding of why VR is so desired.

I remember lying on the beach gazing at the Hawaiian sunset. The sun’s blue and purple hues gently melded into a dim purple mist. The salty brine of seawater hit my nostrils as my body unclenched and the weight of my world evaporated into the night sky. On that trip, I learned that I can be myself, and if I don’t want to, I can be someone else for a bit, an alter ego of sorts.

That euphoric feeling of being on those white sandy beaches and existing as no one of importance was freeing, but it did not solve any of my problems. I thought I felt renewed, but my time in Hawaii only prolonged whatever was going on in my life at the time. Despite being in one of the best destinations on Earth, these things still resonated in my mind, which only suggests one thing: running away to a perfect destination, virtually or otherwise, does not solve our problems.

Sometimes, we escape to recharge or feel better about our circumstances. And maybe there is not much difference between physically and mentally escaping through a VR set, especially if it is done in an escapist way rather than a grounding measure.

VR may mimic the visuals of Hawaii or even try its best to invoke the same sentiments around a summer getaway. Still, unlike escaping to beautiful destinations, it is just another form of escapism with the convenience of never leaving your home. The medium doesn’t change the psychology of travel for some, and for many of us post-COVID, we are escaping from the realities of our world, whether physical or virtual. We all struggle to be here because we don’t want to face that life does suck right now or that we need to change a lot about ourselves to be better people to our friends, family, and society.

Change is challenging, which is why people choose to escape during turbulent times. This can explain why many of us felt lost during the pandemic. There was a sense of identity, or rather, a false sense of identity when we all traveled for weeks at a time. We like to think of travel as a practical method of resetting ourselves, but is it really a reset? What are we even resetting or rediscovering when we are on the Greek Islands or going through Naples?

Being here has a lot more weight than just being physically present. In a digital age where we binge-watch shows or fall deep into the newest fandom drama, it is easy for any one of us to detach from the real-life events materializing in front of our eyes. By unplugging from reality, we are only delaying the unavoidable and sometimes painful issues of our world.

Maybe that is the appeal of VR: the ability to forget the hard and complex times and focus on the simpler things. After all, that cultural shift began when the pandemic hit, and it never quite faded into obscurity.

Death is still inevitable, and while it sounds promising to give the disabled and the deathly ill such technologies to give them essentially a second life, it doesn’t erase the fact that they are still struggling in the real one. Whether their consciousness is present or not, one could get addicted to simulated life just as one gets addicted to drugs or other escapist hobbies like fandom or social media. It permits people to continue not facing their fears and run away to fake worlds where things always go their way, somehow trying their best to cheat death and life.

Escaping into the virtual world can only pause life and the issues that have impacted our lives for so long. These VR sets have made their way into retirement homes in an effort to entertain residents, such as Country Meadows, where they were well-received. It allowed residents to travel for the first time or revisit their favorite places, which is endearing for older people to experience even though their physical bodies cannot travel anymore.

In the wave of the pandemic, it is easy to escape. It is easy not to look inward and confront what you must fix. VR and AR may help us in many ways by preparing us for travel or keeping us entertained, but like every pleasure out there, it needs to be done in moderation.

Whichever way we choose to escape, we must do it sensibly. We must stay in the present and still be here to accept our struggles and face our traumas head-on. Our consciousness is, after all, still attached to our bodies. We must treat our bodies well, as they are still here in this plane of existence.

Katie Doan

Katie Doan is a content creator and multimedia storyteller. Visit nhi’s space, her K-Pop commentary channel.