Gearing Up to Explore Virtually New Worlds

I just spent a chunk of my morning biking around in virtual reality, and, boy, is my brain sore.

I did this at my health spa, which is a weird enough place anyway. For starters, there always seem to be two music sources going at once: Please-shoot-me-lest-I-hear-it-again rock oldies like "Sister Golden Hair" coming from speakers in the workout rooms vie for ear space with booming stuff from the aerobics floor, stuff that usually sounds like disco music for Cylon Warriors. Meanwhile, dozens of folks firm their fannies on StairMasters while watching that adorable Kato Kaelin testify on TV.

Then there are the newer machines, using up farm-sized patches of floor space, involving hundreds of pounds of weights and computer electronics, all to develop specialized muscles that you'd otherwise probably never use unless you had to milk cows floating in outer space or something.

And this morning when I came in there were four more new machines, labeled Tektrix, sitting side by side, appearing to be part bicycle and part home entertainment center. After some wary circling, I sat in one, adjusted the leg length and started pedaling. On the color screen in front of me a computer-imaged countryside began to pass by, and in but a few exhilarating seconds I had crashed headlong into a nice wooden fence.

And there I stayed, pedaling hard, apparently butted up against this fence forever going nowhere, thinking, "Wow, this is just like real life!"

Except in real life you don't have a "help" button. By several pressings of the button I learned you're actually supposed to steer the damn thing, which you do by leaning and working the joysticks at your sides.

These joysticks also had buttons, like those you might use to fire missiles in an arcade. Particular buttons would change gears or vantage points. This latter feature is eerie: Push a button and suddenly your point of view zooms upward and back, so you're looking down on yourself from above, just like those people who die, have out-of-body experiences and then come back just to share them with Jenny Jones.

The gear-changing buttons were very handy, because when a hill came up on the video screen, it got harder to pedal. When you veered off the road onto the grass it got harder to pedal. When you rolled down a flower-strewn slope, it got easier to pedal, but then when you plowed into a lake, it again got harder to pedal, and sloshy water noises came out of the speakers mounted by your head. I'm not making this up.

The actual programmed routes on this machine are "Easy Race," "Difficult Race" and "Flower Tour," not "Joy Ride With Ted Kennedy" as one might have gathered by my excursion. I'm sure most people have a fine time staying on the road but, even after I got the steering down, I found it too beguiling to see what was off the beaten path in this virtual reality world.

I'd start off on the normal racecourse but then couldn't help wondering what would happen if I rammed the other racers on the screen. That wasn't as much fun as one might hope, so I went off-road and started crashing into trees, which had tremendous visual appeal.

The trees would first appear as these lovely things in the distance, with leaves shimmering in an unfelt breeze. Then as you got close enough to clunk, they'd break down into their digital components, squares of color that looked like a robot's paint-by-numbers set.

The Tektrix people put a respectable load of work into their machine. Sometimes butterflies would flutter in front of your face. If you went off the road and too near a house with a dog in the window, it would bark. If you emerged from a lake and crashed into a group of horses, they'd whinny. That's a lot of detail, considering you're supposed to be a quarter of a mile away racing on a road.

"Do you come here often?" asked a nearby voice, which can be a disconcerting question when you've just intentionally crashed your bike into a horse's flank. I shook my head and noticed that back in the comparatively drab reality of the health spa, a woman was seated next to me, pedaling along her own section of the virtual world.

I responded with some useless banter and returned to seeking new extremes of bicycular mayhem on the video screen. But a minute later, the woman started talking to me again. "Do you go to church?" she asked, and it occurred to me she was sizing me up for date material, though, if she'd been watching my screen, maybe she was just concerned about my soul.

I said something to politely put her off, but I started thinking: Cyber-dating! If in virtual reality you can ram into buildings and large animals without consequences, think what that might mean for the peril-fraught world of dating. You could meet people without ever meeting, and if you hit it off, you'd eventually have 2.3 digital children.

Curiously, a minute after this woman asked if I went to church, one appeared on the screen. And I really don't go to church much, especially on a racing bike, so I rode up the stone steps, past the portal, through an empty hall with high-vaulted windows and out the open back door.

It was a bit of a religious experience, since, as the Good Book claims, there is nothing you can do that hasn't been anticipated by the creator. Granted the creator in this case is a computer dweeb, but he did have the foresight to guess that people would try riding through his nice church, and even designed it so bells chimed overhead as you did.

Before I got sidetracked by this virtual world, I had originally intended for this column to take up where last month's had left off, talking about some of my favorite places in Orange County: cool little concert venues, intelligent bookshops and the like. And instead I've spent the whole time talking about places that exist only on a TV monitor.

I have a computer at home I haven't learned to use yet, actually the second such I've had. The first one sat unused for years; it was finally so obsolete that charity thrift shops were refusing to take it off my hands. The new one, which I've had five months, is well on its way to a similar fate.

I'm sure this is due in part to my being flat-out terrified of ever learning anything new. In part it's because, between work and trying to catch up on all the "Rockford Files" reruns on A&E;, I really haven't had a few hours to sit down with the thing.

But chiefly, I'd like to think, I'm worried that there are whole new worlds waiting in that hard disc, and why do I want that when I can scarcely get a handle on the one that's right outside my door?

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