HARDWARE

Life in the Virtual Lane

Inc. Technology's editor muses on why male baby-boomers are so drawn to computer programs that simulate mundane tasks.
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Anyone who has dropped by a video arcade lately must have noticed how realistic some of the game environments have become. Large screens display incredibly detailed virtual-reality views, while ersatz cockpits place players in seats that lurch and shudder with the on-screen action.

Recently, I happened to spy the natural extension of this trend in a California arcade: a game in which the player is seated in a nearly full-size mock-up of a car, in front of a road-size video screen. The driver can even take a nonplaying passenger along for the ride, which runs along a rather ordinary looking virtual highway. But what struck me most about this impressively realistic driving game was that the people lined up to play it were all men in their thirties and forties -- men who presumably had real cars parked nearby on real roads. True, you can get away with more dangerous driving on a screen, but I didn't see any of the players driving significantly more dangerously than the drivers I see every day on the way to work.

I have a theory. Many people, especially males of the baby-boom generation, get a huge kick out of doing computer versions of the very things they do routinely in real life. That would explain, for example, why people fumble obsessively with electronic pocket organizers that, at best, look and function very much like ordinary pocket calendars. And it would explain why the most sophisticated programs and on-line services are forever pursuing mundane metaphors: of paper documents, of desktops, of shopping malls.

Perhaps it's the novelty of electronic versions of life that catches our interest. Or perhaps it's that the physical world is too time-consuming or physically taxing for some of us; in the virtual world, nothing takes longer than a finger click or is heavier than a mouse. In any case it occurs to me that sooner or later a video-game manufacturer is going to hook up with an office-productivity software vendor to offer what will surely be the next big hit: a completely simulated office environment played from a leather executive chair on a room-size video screen. Installed in bars and even living rooms, the game would allow people who have just finished a hard day at the office to enthusiastically manipulate -- with a joystick -- virtual file cabinets, telephones, and staplers. The best part is that the software could be hooked up to office databases so that real work could get done. And you'd never have to lift anything, use your legs, or confront a real human being.

-- David H. Freedman

Last updated: Dec 15, 1995

DAVID H. FREEDMAN

A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.




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