I vividly remember the first time I experienced the majesty that is virtual reality. It was the early 90s and my family was in Florida visiting Disney World. We started at EPCOT, always my favorite, and decided quickly that we would skip the Magic Kingdom on the following day because of how much fun we were having exploring the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Because EPCOT in the 90s was pretty sweet. There were roaming robots, the Figment ride was still the cool one, Horizons was still taking us into the future, and Innoventions was filled with almost nothing but video games. And I remember learning about how they had some virtual reality games there and was so incredibly excited to check them out, only to find them out of order.
BUT! There was this other thing hiding in a corner of Innoventions called the Walt Disney Imagineering Labs (no, I didn’t remember the name, I had to look it up), which promised a tour around some of the cool things that the Imagineers (the people who come up with the rides and experiences and whatnot at the Disney Parks) were up to. We got into this room which showcased this big sprawling model of Agrabah and the surrounding deserts and were then told this story about how they were creating a digital version of Aladdin’s world.
While that isn’t nearly as impressive today, considering anyone with a relatively good computer and access to the Unity Engine can create a digital anything, it was mind blowing at the time. They weren’t talking about making a video game where you go along on prescribed paths, but a living world where you could explore everything.
And then they said they were doing it in VR.
And that a lucky few in the room would get to try it out in the next room.
And…I didn’t get chosen.
But, my dad was as impressed with the idea as I was and made sure to ask the attendant what it would take to be one of the cool cats with the heavy helmets. They replied that all it took would be to be at the front of the line for the next tour.
And so, one of my sisters, my dad, and I did exactly that. And before I knew it, while my mom and my youngest sister were watching the fireworks, my sister and I were flying on magic carpets through the city of Agrabah. And it was amazing.
I mean, you could look down at your hands and see you had those cool cartoon gloves. And Iago talked to you. And people yelled at you if you flew too close to them. And you could go flying way up high only to zoom right back down at the ground at high speed.
They had some game where you were supposed to be looking for rubies or something, but I really didn’t care. All I wanted to do was to explore this new paragon in experiential entertainment. And it went by far too quickly.
I actually got to ride the magic carpets again over a decade later when my wife and I explored this place called DisneyQuest when in Florida on our honeymoon, and it wasn’t nearly as impressive. Computer graphics had become so much better and the hardware was obviously well past its prime, meaning I didn’t have quite the awe-inspiring experience then as I did the first time.
But, last week, my wife bought me an Oculus Quest 2 (yes, I know, but Facebook already knows everything there is to know about me anyways). And just last night all of my kids spent a considerable amount of time scrubbing floors in a virtual house. Because, the truth is, it is crazy how immersive this stuff can get, and how much technology can really do today, even if this is all based on the same stuff I got to experience over twenty years ago.
Now if only I could find a version of those carpets I can ride on my new headset.