Researching for Fiction Locations using VR

While I have used a type of virtual reality for years now, it’s always been on a screen in front of me. Things like Google Earth, Google Street View, and apps like Second Life have been familiar and useful to me when I want to get a unique feel for a place that I cannot actually visit in person. 

Now, especially during the great pandemic of 2020, that is especially true.

Then, one day a few weeks ago, my good friend and podcasting partner Joe started telling me about how much fun he and his wife have been having with their Oculus Quests, and that no, you don’t have to hook it to a $2500 gaming PC. It’s a self-contained $300 piece of tech.

Go on, I said. I’m listening.

The latest one, he told me — the Quest 2 — has even higher specs for an even lower price. The way he was talking, it made me think that perhaps VR hardware stood on the brink of being mainstream. The real kicker, though, was not about gaming — he told me that if I got a set, we could hang out in a virtual theater and watch videos on a screen that rivals the best of the best physical movie screens. They’re huge, he told me. It’s like being there.

In other words, Joe talked me into it.

Now, I did already have a headset, but it was one of those ones where you put a smartphone into it, and I had used it maybe three times before putting it back in its box and sticking it on a shelf — where it still sits today. I’ll just say it was an underwhelming experience.

But Joe emphatically told me the Quest 2 was different. 

Now those who know me will tell you that when I get into something I find really interesting, I don’t just stick my toe into it. I get on a high dive and do a full cannonball right into the deep end. Not only did I buy myself one, but after trying it out, I immediately bought one for everyone in the family. 

This, I thought, was real deal. A total game changer.

The next big thing.

Here’s the problem, though — it’s such a transformative experience that there’s no way to really relate it to someone who’s never done it. It’s kind of like losing your virginity. It’s crossing a major threashold into an entirely new level of experience.

I’m not so sure about earlier VR headsets — the cell phone based one I have only slightly hinted at this — but the Oculus Quest 2 put me into a whole other world. Your mind almost instantly accepts this new space you’re in as real. It’s the closest thing to actual teleportation I have ever experienced, and I know it’s not just me — my family members said the same thing. The weirdest part is not when you “go in” to the experience, it’s when you take the headset off and look around and realize, wow, I’m back. That for some reason is even more jarring — going from this big, Disneylandesq space, or the huge movie theater, or from beside a lake with a fishing pole in your hand, to suddenly being in the dimly lit little cluttered room in your house that you suddenly realize needs a good dusting and probably vacuuming.

One might at this point ask if we’re at the level of the movie Ready Player One.

Emphatically NO. But you can see it on the horizon. It’s there. Whether or not we want to go there is another question, and that is a whole other discussion.

When I told you I dive in like a cannonball, I’m not joking, because based on my Oculus Quest 2 experience I almost immediately did something I had already decided not to do — I bought the VR headset produced for my Playstation 4 Pro, because I wanted to see what it was like to actually immurse myself into the alien worlds I visit in the game No Man’s Sky

I’m glad I went with the Oculus first, because it is far superior to the Playstation headset, with one exception — the Playstation headset is more comfortable to wear. Despite it’s lower image quality, I must admit it still gives me a very good feeling of what it’s like to walk the surface of alien worlds, with huge moons in the skies, and wondrous archways of planetary rings — and sunsets with sometimes two, or even three suns.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this artical. Research.

I’m the type of writer who likes to write what I know. I don’t like to guess. But until now, I have never been able to say I know what it’s like to walk on an (admittedly fictional) alien world.

I do now. And I’m using that experience in my writing.

But, also, in the Oculus Quest, I have a program that pulls in Google Street View, and allows me to take meandering walks in frozen time, down just about any street in the world. And it’s not like viewing it on a screen, it’s like standing right there on that street. I feel what it’s like to be there.

What an awesome tool!

That’s right. Tool. Not toy. This is an incredibly useful tool for researching locations for fiction. That app in the Oculus store only cost $9.99, and it is going to save me literally thousands upon thousands of dollars in travel expense — and probably prevent me from contracting a certain troublesome virus.

And you’d better believe I’m going to write all this off as an expense on my taxes.

Now, it’s not going to completely replace travel. When the pandemic subsides, there are a few places I really need to visit. And I will. But until then, I’ll be donning my headset and teleporting to places — here on Earth, and elsewhere in the galaxy.

If you ever needed an excuse to try one of these out, especially the stand-alone Oculus Quest 2, I say give it a go. You won’t really know what it’s like until you do it yourself.

Snake Alley vs. Lombard Street: Which One is More Crooked?

Last Summer, during a meandering and somewhat aimless road trip with my sweetheart, we came across “Snake Alley” in Burlington, Iowa.

It reminded me so much of Lombard Street in San Francisco that I had to do some research. Which came first, and which one is more crooked?

Well, having been built in 1894, Snake Alley existed 28 years before Lombard Street. And below I’ve put together the two using Google Maps images. I will let you be the judge of which one is more crooked.

Randomness is Not What We Think It Is

I’m writing a series of realistic fantasy books and one of the characters is the god of chaos. Because of this character, I’ve been studying chaos theory in order to write the character with some intelligence, and I’ve been led to an amazing fact:

We all spring out of complete and total randomness.

Everything that is us and our world, and even our thoughts, are the product of complete and total randomness.

If you can wrap your head around this, you begin to understand that we have a general misconception of what “random” truely is. Apple Computers had to come to this conclusion, oddly, because when they first had a “random” setting on their early iPods people complained that it couldn’t possibly be random because it kept grouping songs together. They had to tweak their “random” algorithm to not be truly random so that it actually seemed random.

What we consider a rational, coherent universe is, at its very heart, complete and total random chaos … and yet, out of it springs order and, dare I say, meaning!

I find this utterly fascinating.

Plotting for Timelessness

You are a science fiction writer. Your finger is on the pulse of technology and society’s trends. Closing your eyes, you can see the world of tomorrow, and with your talent, you craft a great work of fiction set in this world you envision.

It takes time to craft a novel. Even after you’ve finished the first draft, there are successive rewrites, and publication woes, and printing and distributions lag times. When your readers finally get a hold of it, there’s a problem. The acceleration of technological advancement has overtaken your vision of the future. A good portion of the science fiction in your story has become reality, or worse, invalidated. 

How do you avoid it? Plan for it. Deliberately.

Many of the classics have a timeless quality about them. There’s something about these works which sets them out of time’s reach so that they’re as fresh now as when they were first printed. While there’s no sure way to write something that will become a “classic,” there is a way to make sure your writing is timeless.

One way is to write your story as a period piece. This works with SF stories where the events don’t change history as we know it. Think “thwarted hidden agenda.” (Author Tim Powers is especially good at this.) Choose a setting either right now or some date in the past. State the date, the place, and incorporate real historic events – this helps build solid suspension of disbelief, and adds an air of authenticity. By its very nature, this type of story can’t become outdated. It exists in time, as history.

Another method is to use a break in reality. Create a future event, without a date, that resets expectations of what comes afterward. It could be a nuclear war, or plague, or maybe an alien invasion. It could also reset the year counter so that even the date is removed from reality. So if your story takes place a hundred years after this event, instead of being the year 2101, it could be year 100. That puts your story completely outside of time.

Of course, you could also set your story in a place entirely removed from our reality. This could be another world, or an alternate reality, or so far in the future or past that there’s not even a remote connection to the here and now. Remember the phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

There are always stories that, by their very nature, need to be set in a specific point in the future. Even if time passes them by, the strength of the story itself pulls the reader past the fact that it’s outdated. Look at “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I don’t care that time has caught up with this classic. So don’t feel you have to try for timelessness in everything you write, but keep it in mind when you feel you’ve come up with your magnum opus.

Not many things suck as much as finishing that big, wonderful, complex story only to have something happen in reality to make what you’ve written completely implausible.

Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.

The Universal Observer

According to quantum physics, the act of observing something affects it. Just that fact that you look at it, changes it. Experiment after experiment proves this.

It gets even more weird.

When you’re looking at the smallest of things, the tiniest of the tiny, nothing is there but possibility. The fact that you look at something forces it to choose one of the possibilities and solidifies it into reality. This leads some to conclude that reality itself is not there if you don’t look at it.

This is very Zen, but ultimately it doesn’t stand up to logic.

Perfect example: Mars. We send rovers to Mars, and look at a landscape that we can tell has been there for a billion years. We didn’t just now force the landscape details into existence by looking at it. It’s been there all this time without us observing it.

Yet still, it’s proven — the nature of reality requires an observer for it to solidify into one (out of all) possibilities.

Observation is necessary for reality.

So who is observing everything when there’s no one around to observe it? This Ultimate Observer must be omniscient and ageless. This Observer must have been around a billion years ago to check out Mars, the surface of Venus, and even the dark side of the Moon.

Logically, this Ultimate Observer must exist, or the Universe would be empty. All the things that we don’t observe wouldn’t be there, and yet they are. We know they are.

Since this Observer is literally forcing the Universe out of a cloud of possibility and into substance, would not this qualify as godhood?

This to me is the best logical argument for the existence of a Universal Mind, be it external, looking in … or perhaps internal, in a panpsychic sense:  that consciousness is a universal and primordial feature of all things.

Apple Products are like Manna from Heaven

Not really.

Well, except that they seem like it for that initial glowing period after purchase. That warm wonderful shiny moment where you hold the beautifully crafted product, so elegantly packaged and presented, and you think, “it’s mine! MINE!”

This glow usually lasts anywhere between 15 minutes to 4 days, then the magic wears off and it’s just another inanimate object you used to try to fill a hole in your life. But the hole is still there, and you’re now deeper in debt.

Why do I say this? Because I live it.

Every time I do this I tell myself, “this is the last time I indulge myself.” Think about how flawed a statement that is. And now, even as I tell myself this, I know it’s flawed, I know it’s a lie I’m telling myself, yet I’m compelled to do it over and over again.

What is even worse, is I’ll initially laugh at a product, and say, “That’s useless! Apple is now lost without Steve Jobs guiding THE TRUE WAY.” I’ll say that and mean it. And then…

And then…

Six months later I own the product.

I cannot blame Apple for this. The blame lies squarely on my shoulders. What I need to do is find the hole my life, figure out its true nature, and then find a way to fill it correctly, with the right plug.

I really should have titled this, “Apple Products are Not the Plug for Your Hole.”

Cancer Comes Knocking

I may have cancer again. I should find out by next week.

I had what was apparently a serious type of skin cancer when I was a young teen. I must have been fourteen or fifteen, somewhere around there. Here’s the weird thing: my parents shielded me from this fact until I was well into adulthood. I literally did not know about it until I was in my late twenties.

It was this dark spot in my ear, and it was growing. I used to hide it with the skin-colored sticky part of a bandaid because it was embarrassing. I just thought it was a mole.

My parent’s friends and family kept pressing my parents to have it checked but my dad was in denial until one point, where I guess it was our family doctor, confronted him. He told my dad I needed to have my ear amputated and to go through radioactive chemotherapy.

From what I gather, my dad said, “Fuck that,” and instead took me to a specialist in San Francisco. They removed it, leaving a big hole in my ear, and replaced the tissue with skin grafts from my back. The biopsy confirmed it was indeed cancerous. I never did receive the chemo, because my dad didn’t believe in it.

This is what my parents told me: “They have no idea what it was. It was so weird that they sent the mole to the Smithsonian.”

For years I believed this, and used to joke that it was probably a tracking device that aliens implanted in me when I was a youngster. Then one day, after my parents had split up and my mom was living up in the mountains, I was visiting with her with my then wife Becky and our little baby daughter, and I said something about the mole and how it had been sent to the Smithsonian.

My mom laughed and said, “Oh no. No. That was cancer. It was juvenile melanoma.”

“WHAT?!”

“Oh yeah,” she said, “you had cancer. You probably got it from being in the desert sun so much when you were a kid.”

Needless to say, I was stunned.

I tend to forget about this, so maybe they really did do me a favor. When I’m around cancer survivors I keep forgetting I am also one. Then when it dawns on me, and I finally do say, “Yes, me too,” I don’t really feel legit, because I didn’t go through all the crap that most cancer survivors go through.

And so fast forward another 30 years, and here I am waiting to get results back from a blood test. Here’s something I feel oddly guilty about: I’m not worried.

We’ll see how I’m feeling come Monday afternoon.

Update: Spiral Into Oblivion

Resurrection on Thanksgiving Day

I need a place to publically doodle with words.

In asking myself “Why?” I get no real answer. Why is it I can’t just write this down on paper? Why can’t I just type it into a document file? Why do I feel I need to share this rambling nonsense with the rest of the world when actually I’d rather hide from it all?

I have no idea.

This blog has actually existed in one form or another as far back as the 1990s, from before they were called “blogs” (they were generally referred to as “web journals”). So, while I’m kicking the tires on this new incarnation, and working my way through themes to choose one that matches how I feel, I’ll reach way back through time and post something from this day back in the year 2005:

11/22/2005

OpenOffice.org 2.0

Filed under: Reviews — Jerry @ 6:59 pm

I’m still working on a story, still writing it in OpenOffice 2.0 Writer.

I really wanted to like this word processor. I mean, I really really wanted to like it. It’s free, it’s open source, it’s got the blessing of Google and Sun Microsystems.

Previously I reported it to be “clunky.”

Yes, it’s clunky. It’s damn clunky. I hate it. I really am totally hating writing this story in it. I can’t wait to finish the story so I can erase the whole damn suite off my computer.

Sorry OpenOffice people, but Microsoft’s got me too spoiled. And now I find myself salivating at the promise of a new Microsoft Word version coming out next year.

Now, all that being said, let me throw OpenOffice.Org a bone: it’s better than nothing. In fact, had I not already been spoiled by Word, I probably would be singing praises for OOO. And, also, I hated the last version of WordPerfect I tried, too.

So, that’s the end of this experiment for me. I’m done. And having said that, I guess it’s okay for me to copy my story out of OOO and into Word and just get it over with.

Sci-Fi Writers Take Note: There Are Way More Stars Than We Thought

A while ago I read a fascinating news release from JPL about a sounding rocket experiment that measures the light between galaxies. The conclusion: “While we have previously observed cases where stars are flung from galaxies in a tidal stream, our new measurement implies this process is widespread.”

In other words, there are way, way more stars out there than we thought, drifting in-between the galaxies.

From the article: “The light looks too bright and too blue to be coming from the first generation of galaxies,” said James Bock, principal investigator of the CIBER project from Caltech and JPL. “The simplest explanation, which best explains the measurements, is that many stars have been ripped from their galactic birthplace, and that the stripped stars emit on average about as much light as the galaxies themselves.” [My emphasis.]

So for every galaxy of stars out there, there’s another galaxy worth of stars drifting around between the galaxies. To me that means there’s twice as many stars as we thought in the Universe, which also means there’s twice as many chances for habitable worlds.

It also means that in your star trekking speculative fiction, really advanced galactic civilizations could more conceivably make their way to other galaxies, as it’s not a big huge empty stretch between — according to the article, it’s more like a halo of stars between, and perhaps even bridging, the spaces between galaxies.

It’s fascinating to me to think of civilizations developing among these isolated, far flung stars, and now mathematically speaking, the chances of other civilizations existing have essentially doubled.

Okay, I’ve planted the seed in your imaginations. Let them run wild!

Here’s a link to the article: The Universe is Brighter Than We Thought »