One Man’s Infinite Hunt for a Dopamine Rush in Digital Actuality

One Man’s Endless Hunt for a Dopamine Rush in Virtual Reality

On a current Thursday night on the Metropolis Life Group Heart in Missoula, Mont., Wolf Heffelfinger performed laser tag.

Sporting a pair of heavy goggles, he bobbed throughout the gymnasium, firing fake laser weapons with each arms. It was not all that totally different from every other sport of laser tag — besides he was taking part in in digital actuality.

As he and a good friend raced across the gymnasium, he noticed himself sprinting down the neon-lit corridors of a spacecraft. So did his good friend. With digital actuality goggles strapped over their eyes, they may not see one another. However they may chase one another in an imaginary world.

For Mr. Heffelfinger, a 48-year-old musician, entrepreneur and free spirit, the sport was one other step in a decade-long obsession with digital actuality. For the reason that arrival of the seminal Oculus headset in 2013, he has performed video games in digital actuality, watched motion pictures, visited distant lands and assumed new identifies.

He sees his digital adventures as a relentless seek for the dopamine rush that comes when the know-how takes him someplace new. When he reaches the sting of what the know-how can do, the frenzy wanes. He has put his many headsets on the shelf, the place they’ve sat for months. However when advances arrive, he leaps again in.

Mr. Heffelfinger’s on-and-off preoccupation synchronizes with the tech business’s on-and-off affair with digital actuality, investing billions in an idea that has for a number of years appeared just some steps from going mainstream with out fairly getting there.

Now, digital actuality know-how could also be one other step nearer to a mass market, with Fb’s Mark Zuckerberg and different well-known executives heralding the arrival of “the metaverse” — a digital world the place individuals can talk by way of digital actuality and different new and yet-to-be-invented applied sciences — and repeated rumors that Apple will soar into the combo.

There’s a query, nonetheless, if digital actuality is really prepared for mainstream shoppers. Through the years, enhancements have by no means fairly matched expectations. It’s as if science fiction — many years of novels, motion pictures and tv about digital actuality — has set individuals up for perpetual disappointment.

“I would like it to be a part of my life, and I at all times suppose it will likely be,” Mr. Heffelfinger stated. “However the dream at all times ends.”

As Mr. Heffelfinger ready for his sport of laser tag within the Missoula neighborhood middle, a gaggle of youngsters have been taking part in paintball one ground under. It was largely the identical sport: goggles, fake weapons and pursuit round a gymnasium. However the youngsters remained in the true world.

When requested why he didn’t simply join a sport of old school paintball, Mr. Heffelfinger stated taking part in in a world of science fiction made all of the distinction. He loved being taken away. “I can enter the film,” he stated.

He may even be a unique individual. As he and his good friend, John Brownell, booted up the sport, referred to as Area Pirate Enviornment, Mr. Heffelfinger selected a giant, beefy, ostentatiously masculine avatar wearing camouflage. Mr. Brownell selected one which regarded loads just like the actress Angelina Jolie. Mr. Heffelfinger imagined himself in a dystopian world.

“An episode of ‘Black Mirror’ flashed by way of my thoughts, the place these two guys fall in love with one another in VR by selecting totally different avatars,” he stated, referring to a science fiction sequence on Netflix. “I don’t suppose he realized the impact this had on me.”

Mr. Heffelfinger craves one thing referred to as lucid dreaming. He as soon as made a brief movie in regards to the elusive phenomenon the place goals are skilled with full consciousness — a bit just like the enormously detailed, utterly convincing goals in Hollywood movies like “Inception” and “Vanilla Sky.”

When he discovered digital actuality, he realized it supplied the identical feeling. “After some time, your mind performs a trick on you,” he stated. “You imagine you’re actually there.”

He first tried the Oculus at an workplace get together when it was only a check package for software program builders and instantly ordered one in every of his personal. The experiences have been quick, easy and cartoonlike: a visit to the highest of a skyscraper or a flight in an area capsule. However after Fb acquired the start-up that pioneered the headset and pumped tens of millions of {dollars} into the know-how, different firms adopted go well with, and the probabilities expanded.

Mr. Heffelfinger visited Egyptian pyramids. He watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Area Odyssey” in digital actuality whereas suspended in a float tank. He took an area police detective by way of a digital recreation of Missoula, stitched collectively from high-definition photographs, and so they got here to see the know-how as a means of investigating a criminal offense scene with out being there. Generally, on cloudy Montana days, he would disappear into digital actuality simply to see the solar.

“The character of those fantasy worlds is that they feed dopamine into the reward pathways of our brains,” stated Anna Lembke, a Stanford College psychiatrist and the writer of “Dopamine Nation,” an exploration of habit within the trendy world. “They carry the potential for habit.”

However as with different addictions, tolerances are developed. Reaching the dopamine excessive will get more durable.

Mr. Heffelfinger grew bored with every new headset. The experiences have been repetitive. He couldn’t transfer as freely as he would really like. He may not likely join with different individuals. Digital actuality couldn’t fairly match the vitality of the true world, and typically it made him sick.

He turned one headset right into a plant holder and one other into a bit of neckwear he wore on walks by way of the Montana mountains. “It seems {that a} stroll outdoors is far more enjoyable,” he stated.

However he at all times purchased one other pair of goggles. Generally, he spent a whole lot of {dollars} on headsets for pals, hoping they might be part of him in digital actuality. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he noticed the know-how as an excellent antidote to quarantine, and for a time, it was. He may mingle with pals and strangers in an ethereal gathering place referred to as AltspaceVR.

He visited a digital recreation of Burning Man, the annual bohemian artwork competition, with a feminine good friend. As they strolled by way of the desert campsites, among the many artwork installations, sculptures, and souped-up automobiles and vehicles, Mr. Heffelfinger acquired the uneasy feeling that he, a married man, was on a date with somebody who was not his spouse.

“We’d frolicked one million instances in actual life, and it by no means felt like a date,” he stated. “She makes herself a lot prettier in VR.”

Later, he instructed his spouse what had occurred, and as a means of creating amends, he purchased her a headset and invited her into digital actuality. As they walked right into a digital cocktail bar, he heard the voice of the lady he had taken to Burning Man, and he or she approached them from throughout the room.

“Can we not go wherever with out one in every of your females displaying up?” his spouse stated, earlier than her avatar retreated into the space and went limp. She had taken off her headset.

It was a weird and sudden mixture of the true and the digital. Prior to now, the three of them had hung out collectively in the true world. He knew that may not occur once more.

Mr. Heffelfinger quickly put his headset away. His Oculus sat in a inexperienced bin on high of his sauna. However then, a couple of months later, he stumbled onto a video about Area Pirate Enviornment.

“I used to be disgusted with VR,” he stated. “However now I’m again.”

He’ll most likely get bored once more. Like many individuals who use the know-how, he believes many extra years will move earlier than it turns into an unshakable a part of on a regular basis life. And he admits that, regardless of how good the know-how will get, he’s cautious of spending an excessive amount of time there.

“I like going into digital actuality,” he stated. “However I at all times wish to come out.”

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