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

On a current Thursday night on the Metropolis Life Neighborhood 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 fingers. 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 health club, 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. Because the 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 search for the dopamine rush that comes when the expertise takes him someplace new. When he reaches the sting of what the expertise 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 a idea that has for a number of years appeared simply a few steps from going mainstream with out fairly getting there.

Now, digital actuality expertise 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 all the time assume it is going to be,” Mr. Heffelfinger stated. “However the dream all the time ends.”

As Mr. Heffelfinger ready for his sport of laser tag in the Missoula group middle, a group of youngsters had been taking part in paintball one ground beneath. It was largely the identical sport: goggles, fake weapons and pursuit round a health club. However the youngsters remained in the true world.

When requested why he didn’t simply enroll for 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 might even be a totally different individual. As he and his good friend, John Brownell, booted up the sport, called Space Pirate Arena, Mr. Heffelfinger selected a huge, beefy, ostentatiously masculine avatar dressed in camouflage. Mr. Brownell selected one which appeared a lot just like the actress Angelina Jolie. Mr. Heffelfinger imagined himself in a dystopian world.

“An episode of ‘Black Mirror’ flashed by 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 collection on Netflix. “I don’t assume he realized the impact this had on me.”

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

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

He first tried the Oculus at an workplace occasion when it was simply a check equipment for software program builders and instantly ordered one in every of his personal. The experiences had been quick, easy and cartoonlike: a journey to the highest of a skyscraper or a flight in a area capsule. However after Fb acquired the start-up that pioneered the headset and pumped thousands and thousands of {dollars} into the expertise, different firms adopted swimsuit, and the probabilities expanded.

Mr. Heffelfinger visited Egyptian pyramids. He watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A House Odyssey” in digital actuality whereas suspended in a float tank. He took a native police detective by a digital recreation of Missoula, stitched collectively from high-definition pictures, they usually got here to see the expertise as a approach of investigating a crime 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 dependancy in the fashionable world. “They carry the potential for dependancy.”

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

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

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

However he all the time purchased one other pair of goggles. Generally, he spent lots of of {dollars} on headsets for buddies, hoping they might be a part of him in digital actuality. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he noticed the expertise as a great antidote to quarantine, and for a time, it was. He might mingle with buddies and strangers in an ethereal gathering place known as AltspaceVR.

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

“We’d frolicked a million occasions 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 approach of creating amends, he purchased her a headset and invited her into digital actuality. As they walked into a digital cocktail bar, he heard the voice of the girl he had taken to Burning Man, and she or he approached them from throughout the room.

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

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

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

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

He’ll in all probability get bored once more. Like many individuals who use the expertise, 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, irrespective of how good the expertise will get, he’s cautious of spending an excessive amount of time there.

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

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