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

On a current Thursday night on the Metropolis Life Group Middle 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 palms. It was not all that completely different from some other recreation of laser tag — besides he was enjoying in digital actuality.

As he and a pal raced across the fitness center, he noticed himself sprinting down the neon-lit corridors of a spacecraft. So did his pal. 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. For the reason that arrival of the seminal Oculus headset in 2013, he has performed video games in digital actuality, watched films, visited distant lands and assumed new identifies.

He sees his digital adventures as a relentless seek for the dopamine rush that comes when the know-how takes him someplace new. When he reaches the sting of what the know-how 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 an idea that has for a number of years appeared only a few steps from going mainstream with out fairly getting there.

Now, digital actuality know-how 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 leap into the combination.

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, films and tv about digital actuality — has set individuals up for perpetual disappointment.

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“I want it to be part of my life, and I always think it will be,” Mr. Heffelfinger mentioned. “But the dream always ends.”

As Mr. Heffelfinger ready for his recreation of laser tag within the Missoula neighborhood heart, a bunch of youngsters had been enjoying paintball one ground beneath. It was largely the identical recreation: goggles, fake weapons and pursuit round a fitness center. However the youngsters remained in the true world.

When requested why he didn’t simply join a recreation of old style paintball, Mr. Heffelfinger mentioned enjoying in a world of science fiction made all of the distinction. He loved being taken away. “I can enter the movie,” he mentioned.

He might even be a distinct individual. As he and his pal, John Brownell, booted up the sport, referred to as House Pirate Enviornment, Mr. Heffelfinger selected an enormous, beefy, ostentatiously masculine avatar wearing camouflage. Mr. Brownell selected one which appeared rather a lot just like the actress Angelina Jolie. Mr. Heffelfinger imagined himself in a dystopian world.

“An episode of ‘Black Mirror’ flashed through my mind, where these two guys fall in love with each other in VR by choosing different avatars,” he mentioned, referring to a science fiction collection on Netflix. “I don’t think he realized the effect this had on me.”

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

When he discovered digital actuality, he realized it supplied the identical feeling. “After a while, your brain plays a trick on you,” he mentioned. “You believe you are really there.”

He first tried the Oculus at an workplace social gathering when it was only a check equipment for software program builders and instantly ordered one among his personal. The experiences had been brief, easy and cartoonlike: a visit to the highest of a skyscraper or a flight in an area capsule. However after Fb acquired the start-up that pioneered the headset and pumped thousands and thousands of {dollars} into the know-how, different firms adopted go well with, and the chances expanded.

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Mr. Heffelfinger visited Egyptian pyramids. He watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in digital actuality whereas suspended in a float tank. He took an area police detective by a digital recreation of Missoula, stitched collectively from high-definition pictures, and so they got here to see the know-how as a means of investigating against the law scene with out being there. Typically, on cloudy Montana days, he would disappear into digital actuality simply to see the solar.

“The nature of these fantasy worlds is that they feed dopamine into the reward pathways of our brains,” mentioned Anna Lembke, a Stanford College psychiatrist and the writer of “Dopamine Nation,” an exploration of habit within the trendy world. “They carry the potential for addiction.”

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

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. Digital actuality couldn’t fairly match the vitality of the true world, and typically it made him sick.

He turned one headset right into a plant holder and one other into a chunk of neckwear he wore on walks by the Montana mountains. “It turns out that a walk outside is much more fun,” he mentioned.

However he all the time purchased one other pair of goggles. Typically, he spent a whole lot of {dollars} on headsets for mates, hoping they’d be a part of him in digital actuality. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he noticed the know-how as a really perfect antidote to quarantine, and for a time, it was. He might mingle with mates and strangers in an ethereal gathering place referred to as AltspaceVR.

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

“We’d hung out a million times in real life, and it never felt like a date,” he mentioned. “She makes herself much prettier in VR.”

Later, he instructed his spouse what had occurred, and as a means of constructing amends, he purchased her a headset and invited her into digital actuality. As they walked right into a digital cocktail bar, he heard the voice of the lady he had taken to Burning Man, and she or he approached them from throughout the room.

“Can we not go anywhere without one of your females showing up?” his spouse mentioned, 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. Up to now, the three of them had frolicked 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 high of his sauna. However then, just a few months later, he stumbled onto a video about House Pirate Enviornment.

“I was disgusted with VR,” he mentioned. “But now I’m back.”

He’ll most likely get bored once more. Like many individuals who use the know-how, 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, regardless of how good the know-how will get, he’s cautious of spending an excessive amount of time there.

“I like going into virtual reality,” he mentioned. “But I always want to come out.”