Escape


The world can no longer offer anything to the man filled with anguish -Kant

George Davies dutifully went to work as he had done every working day for the past 20 some years in the belief that company loyalty and hard work was the best way to provide for himself and family. The clock radio was tuned to one of those automated FM radio stations that had an easy listening music format and came on each morning at 5:30. For the past two weeks it came on playing “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  Changing the station seemed pointless since he turned it off right away and trying not to disturb his still sleeping wife got up and busied himself with his mechanical get-ready-for-work routine.

The 40-minute drive to work did not seem much different than any other day; uneventful and boring except for the occasional moments of shear terror reacting to the insanity of aggressive drivers.   The car radio played the same annoying commercial at the same spot in the road and the traffic was like a gathering of old friends: license LULU 2 belonged to the brunette who was always putting on the final touches in the rear-view mirror, the blue pickup with the sports bumper sticker, the sedan with a collection of baseball caps lined up across the back window.

Tracking the progress of the construction of a new building along George’s usual commute offered a bit of a diversion.  George thought that the site chosen for the building was a rather unusual; the narrow strip of land between the road and the river seemed more suited for a park; but then he had an affinity for parks and nature anyway. The sign in front proclaimed “Future Home of Escape.”  No other words were posted saying what kind of business it was.  Was it a bar or perhaps a restaurant?  The sign had to be some kind of marketing tease to create suspense and attract the curious when the business finally opened.

Everyday at work was a challenge to survive. The situation was going from bad to worse: the economy was in a free-fall, everyone was stressed out, on edge and suffering through yet another reorganization. Though his job had remained unchanged George had reported to four different managers in six months. He did not know how long he would last or what he would do if he got the ax. There is not much of a job market for middle-aged engineers and he could see himself at the end of the line bagging groceries at the local super market or flipping burgers in one of those nutrition impaired fast food joints.

Nine months after groundbreaking Escape was ready for its grand opening.  True to the marketing strategy George’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to stop in on his way home.

Inside the entrance was a suspended display screen saying in large letters “Welcome to Escape, the Ultimate Experience in Virtual Reality.” The main room had a number of booths each with a clear glass door along one wall. In several of the booths people were sitting in lounge chairs wearing helmets which appeared to be connected with a cable to the back of the chair.

Around the walls and hanging from the ceiling were numerous large video display screens showing promotionals for the various games one could experience.  It reminded George of an over TVed sports bar, if that were possible.

An attendant approached George and said, “Welcome to Escape, can I help you get started with your virtual reality experience?”

Noticing the attendant’s nametag George said, “Hi Bill, could you please tell me what kind of business this is?”

“This is a virtual reality center,” replied Bill, “where you can play games and interact with other people in a variety of virtual environments.”

“So why the special center? Can’t I do this from my home computer?

“This is one of many centers around the world connected to a supercomputer by a proprietary high-speed virtual reality network called the VR Net,” Bill explained.

“So this is like a video game arcade?

“In a way yes,” replied Bill, “except that you can experience everything visually in three dimensions complete with touch and feel and actually become part of the action.  Would you like to give it a try?”

“Sure, why not,” replied George.

Bill escorted George to one of the small rooms where he sat in the lounge chair.  Bill showed him how to insert his credit card in slot provided in the arm of the chair and fitted him with the helmet and gloves.  Bill explained that the helmet contained the brain computer interface sensors and a display screen in front of each eye giving George a real world like three-dimensional stereoscopic image while the tactical glove provided the ability to experience touch and feel.

The operation of the system appeared intuitive enough with menu selections for getting started, and more advanced choices for fantasy games and various virtual environments such as city life, parks and nature trails.

Taking Bill’s recommendation George chose the blocks game to get started and become comfortable in the virtual world. Selecting the menu item he instantly found himself inside a small room containing a number of blocks of various geometric shapes and colors: cubes, cylinders, pyramids, etc.  The head mounted screens inside the helmet displayed the room and its contents as a three dimensional binocular image.  Within his field of view he could see an image of his hand.  As he turned his head up and down and side-to-side he could see more blocks.  With his gloved hand he could reach out and pick up a block, then move it or stack it on top of another block.  Like real blocks, when the stack became unbalanced they fell down.   Playing with blocks reminded him of the many happy hours he had spent with his daughter engaged in a similar activity.

Over a period of several days George tried out several of the getting started experiences. The roller coaster ride was the wildest he had ever been on.  The twists and turns the coaster took defied all laws of physics and would be impossible in the real world.  He could feel and react to the movement in much the same way as he had viewing one of those 360 degree or Imax movies but several times more dramatic.  Bill was right, the sensations and reacting in the virtual world took some getting used to.

The fantasy games, he found, were similar to those hand held games except that instead of manipulating an on screen character with thumb activated controls you became the character and took on that characters point of view.  If your character was knocked down you got a view from the floor of your attacker.

In exploring the city streets George would encounter many different individuals much like real life. In the virtual world, however, if he met someone he did not like all he had to think was “zap” or point at the zap button on the screen and the person would disappear.  This also worked if the other person zapped you.  In either case the person was gone.  The best part was that the system remembered those he had zapped and he never had to encounter them again.  What a great feature if only it was available in real life, he thought.

George tended to avoid confrontation and was untrained in the art of snark, banter, repartee and quick wits.  He was one of those for whom the perfect retort did not come to him until several days after an encounter.  Besides, he thought, the confrontational thrust and parry of dialogue was rather pointless, entertaining, perhaps, but decidedly pointless.

The virtual environments included the ability to experience history such as Biblical, medieval, and Roman culture or future worlds right out of Star Wars.  The stressful adrenaline pumping fight or flight feelings in those eras was not something that George was comfortable with.

Choosing the placid nature trails George found himself on a tree lined path complete with the pleasing sounds of songbirds. Approaching a bridge he noticed a woman looking into the water below. She appeared to be middle aged, fit and trim with blond hair.

“Hi,” George said and uncharacteristically introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Paula.”

So far so good, George thought, she didn’t zap me, yet anyway.

“You ever see fish having sex?” she asked.

“Can’t say that I have.”

Looking down George saw two fish side-by-side.  The female was laying eggs in the sand while the male fertilized them.

“Amazing, isn’t it? Especially considering that this is only a virtual experience.”

“Yes,” George replied.

“Where are you from?” George asked.

“I live in Minneapolis.”

“I am in Pittsburgh.” George offered. “Do you come hear often?”

“As often as I can.  I find the trail relaxing and there is always something new to see and experience.”

A younger appearing man approached them on the bridge.

“Hi, Mark. Good to see you,” Paula said.  “Mark has been helping me get used to the virtual world.”

“Sort of a virtual coach,” George offered

“You might say that. Mark used to come into the system from an Escape center in Houston but now he is part of the system.”

“Part of the system?” George asked.

“Let me explain, “Mark said. “You see there are outside or telepresence people like you two.  People who go to Escape centers in the real world and connect into the VR-Net.  Then there are people like me who have made the transition to become an inside person.”

“Inside person?” George asked making a quizzical facial expression not knowing if it was communicated into the virtual world.

“For inside people or IPs as we are called the virtual world is our life, so to speak, and we are dead in the real world.  As you can tell we don’t act or look any different we just don’t have to get up and deal with the real world anymore.”

“Speaking of the real world I’m afraid that I have to go take care of some business.  It was nice meeting you both.  Hope to see you again.”  George said as he pulled his credit card out of the slot and disconnected from the system.  Actually he was quite taken aback and needed some time to process what he just heard.

George had book marked the nature trail location where he had met Paula and Mark. Over the next couple of months he returned to the spot to meet up with Paula.  The two of them shared the joy of exploring the virtual trails and becoming familiar with other experiences that were available in the system.  He even met up with Mark who explained how the transition into an IP took place.

It was a typical February day in Pittsburgh; cold and gloomy. The phone rang on George’s desk.  He could tell from the caller ID that it was his manager.  He picked up the handset and identified himself anyway in his best customer service voice.

“George, do you have a minute?”  He sensed immediately that something bad was about to happen.  It always does when a manager asks you if you have a minute.

“Yes,” he replied knowing that it was the only possible answer.

“Could you please come to our conference room?”

Entering the room he saw his manager du jour, Susan from Human Resources and Mike from Security already seated around the large conference table.

“Please sit down.” Barbara said. “You know Susan and Mike?”

“Morning, “ George said as he took his seat.

“I am afraid that I have some bad news,” Barbara said and then went on rehashing the recent difficulties and company restructuring as if it was some kind of excuse or something that she needed to apologize for.  He reengaged when she got to the part “so it has been decided to let you go.  Mike will accompany you to your desk for you to collect your personal items and escort you out of the building.  Do you have any questions?”

“No,” he said knowing that any inquiry or discussion would be pointless and he wanted to at least maintain some semblance of professional dignity.  What got his blood pressure up more than anything was the thought that all the time he was doing his job and carrying out managements’ directives that same management was scheming to get rid of him.  All he could think about was how all he had worked for was for nothing. Perhaps his only hope was to escape with Paula.

Not really having any place to go he went to Escape and logged in.

“Hi George,” Paula said as she came into view on their now familiar trail, “mind if I join you?”

“No of course not, I was hoping we would meet today.  I missed seeing you the past few days.”

After they walked a short distance Paula said, “George, I have something to tell you.”

“For the past few months I have been an outside person like you. I would come to Escape to find some relief through the distraction of the virtual experience.  You see, for the past few years I have been suffering with ovarian cancer and was told last week that there was nothing more that could be done. I was terminal and in a great deal of pain. So I decided to make the transition to become a virtual person. I am now inside and it is wonderful.”

“Wow! I don’t know whether to say I’m sorry or congratulations.  I guess I’m sorry for your suffering but at the same time I’m happy that you are now free.”

“Thanks,” Paula said.

“But what about your family?” George asked.

“They think that I was so despondent over my condition that I committed suicide. I will send them an e-mail in a few days letting them know that I am okay and in a better place.”

George had so many questions, “You can do that? Won’t they be confused?

“Yes, that is the beauty of being a virtual person.  You are still your own person and you can still communicate, like we do and through e-mail, but without the baggage of a broken body or the demands of the material world. Sure they will be confused but they will get used to it.”

And then it struck him.  Why didn’t he think of this before? “So you are now immortal?” George asked.

“Yes. Remember what Mark told us. We become a collection of data representing who we are: our thoughts, memories, values, beliefs, likes and dislikes, our very soul,” Paula replied, “as long as the system is maintained in the outside we will be alive, so to speak, on the inside.”

As George pondered Paula’s situation and how it paled in comparison to his he shared with her his job loss experience. “I don’t know what to do. I feel like such a failure: my family life is over, my wife and I have grown indifferent toward each other and I dread the thoughts of going home, I can’t sleep, I am up to my ears in debt and my house is up for foreclosure. I feel like I can’t go on any more.”

“Why don’t you come inside with me?” Paula asked.

In the back of his mind George was aware that Escape had become an addiction; an addiction whose expense had exacerbated his financial situation; an addiction from which there appeared to be no escape.

Feeling frustrated George replied, “I don’t know.  How do I know if this is for real, that you are for real and not just an image without the real world history you just told me about?”

“Check it out George.” Paula said.  “Look up the obits in the Minneapolis Herald for February 26th. You will find an entry for Paula Williamson.”

Later that day George went to the on-line obituaries and sure enough there she was.  Paula Williamson, age 64, she sure didn’t look 64 he thought, died of an apparent suicide after a long illness.  The obit went on – she is survived by her husband, a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

George was found in his car parked in a roadside pullover overlooking the river.  The authorities said that he had apparently died of a drug overdose.

“Welcome to the new world,” Paula said as they gazed into the water below watching the newly hatched fish.  “Imagine that, new life in a virtual world.”

Copyright (c) 2009 Robert Ivey

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© R. Ivey and vrbob, 2004 - 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to R. Ivey and vrbob with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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