And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I started to cry. I wasn’t just watching any old planet being destroyed. I was watching my planet – our planet – being destroyed. I wasn’t gazing down on its majesty. I was gazing down on our majesty. There’s little difference between humans and the planet we inhabit. As Carl Sagan observed, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” I am made of the same things the Earth is made of. So in watching its death, I was watching our death.
Google Earth VR provides a similar kind of God-like omnipotence. But instead of being bounded by the universe, this sandbox is constrained within the confines of Earth itself. What do most people do when they first enter the Google Earth VR sandbox? They go home. So that’s what I did. I went back to the place I grew up when I was a kid, back to that tiny little town in southeast Georgia.
I hovered above the town, flew right above the house where I was raised, and dropped down into the front yard. And there I was, standing in front of the house where I grew up.
And there they were again: those tears. Flooded with an ocean of memories, I looked around behind me and saw my neighbor’s house – the basketball hoop still there, the small apple tree now grown so large, the driveway giving way to moss and neglect.
I was there. And yet, of course, I wasn’t really there. But, then again, I kind of was. Another curious contradiction within VR and a rich source of creative tension: that you can “literally” do things, but you aren’t literally doing any of these things. So you can “literally” be in front of the house where you grew up and yet not literally be in front of the house where you grew up at the same time. You can “literally” step into the shoes of another person and experience what it’s like to be them, but you can’t literally step into the shoes of another person and experience what it’s like to be them. Makes no sense. And that’s part of what makes it so fun.
I find myself frequently going back into Google Earth VR to travel to places I’ve never been. I stood on top of Mt. Everest, visited a busy market in Syria, stood under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Went back to the hospital where I was born, visited the school in Japan where I taught English, hovered above Hong Kong, stood and looked up at the tallest building in the world. Every time I enter this sandbox, I’m excited about what I’ll discover.
The last sandbox -- You VR -- is constrained within the confines of the human body. And while it doesn’t offer as much unbounded freedom as the other two sandboxes, it nevertheless provides an extraordinary range of possibility. I stood inside a healthy beating heart, adjusted the beats per minute, and watched the ventricles expand and contract at ever-increasing speeds. I then switched the view and saw what an unhealthy heart looks like and how the ventricles behave.