Thursday, February 29, 2024

Virtual Reality Killer App!


For many years we’ve been hearing about how Virtual Reality (VR) is going to be a game-changer across the human experience, and not just a whiz-bang enhancement to video gaming. This is an amazing technology just waiting to be monetized. We’ve heard various proposed use cases involving education, physical therapy, tools for first responders, etc. but decades on VR is still kind of a fringe thing, without the “killer app” that will launch it into the forefront of blah blah blah. Well, this post proposes a truly germane use of this technology that could benefit millions of people. Instead of boring you with an essay on what I’m proposing, I’m going to walk you through the experience I have in mind. Call this post “VVR” ... as in, Verbal VR.

The experience

You enter the VR facility, receive a brief tutorial, don a haptic suit and a virtual reality headset, and mount an omnidirectional treadmill. Immediately you are immersed in a totally new world … but actually, it’s not exactly new. It’s all too familiar, from the dry heat of a late spring day (courtesy of the haptic suit) to the sound of yelling and cheering, to the sight of a red-orange running track surrounding an unrealistically brilliantly green infield. It’s a lot like where you ran track in high school except that the bleachers are completely full.

You look down at yourself and you’re wearing the same track uniform, with the distinctive Cobra insignia, that you wore in high school. You explore your environment and find you’re surrounded by ultra-fit looking teens in the identical uniforms, many of them calling you by name. “Stacey, are you pumped?!” a girl asks. After a pause she gives you a simpatico look and whispers, “Gawd, I’m actually so nervous!”

You look down again and see that you’re definitely wearing track cleats. You realize you’re not just here to wander around. “Stacey, we gotta warm up, we’re up next!” someone yells. She jogs over to you and says, “Let’s go!” But before you can follow her, a gruff forty-something man with a Cobras cap, a tracksuit, a clipboard, and a whistle hanging on a lanyard approaches. “Stacey, I need a minute with you,” he says, and ushers you off to the side.

“Look, today has got to be the day,” he declares. “We’ve never been this close to winning Conference. All our top runners are totally peaking right now. This is a massive opportunity. And like we talked about after last practice, I’m not having you run any events except the 100 meter hurdle, so you can just focus purely on that. Obviously there’s no way you’ll win, but I really think you can get top three. Your speed, your form, it’s all there—but as I’ve said all season, you need to three-step it. It breaks my heart every time I see you heading for the hurdle, flying along, everything perfect, and then you suddenly chicken out and do that childish stutter step. You should be well beyond this. I know you can three-step because you did it that time in practice when I ran next to you and yelled at you the whole time. You did it perfect. I really thought that was the breakthrough, that you’d do it right from then on.”

It’s all coming back to you now: the dreaded three-step, the bane of your high school existence. When you graduated, most of your excitement was actually relief that you were done with track: you’d managed to get your letter, you’d put the experience on your college essay, but you wouldn’t be running in college, and nobody would ever hassle you about three-stepping for the rest of your life. And yet here’s this coach, practically frothing at the mouth, exhorting you all over again.

“It’s not just the points, Stacey. I mean, it is—you definitely need a top three here, and like I said you cannot get that with all the momentum you lose stutter-stepping—but it’s bigger than that. We need every girl to be totally on today. Do you remember how stoked everyone was when Barb won the 400 at the last meet? That lifted everyone. We were having a good meet but after that win, everyone dug deeper and we had a great meet. If you do your typical step-stuttering thing here you’re gonna bring down morale for everyone. We’ve worked on your speed and technique all season and I know you can do this, you have to do this.”

Here he peers over the top of his sunglasses and looks you right in the eye. “Are we good? Are you gonna do this right?” You manage to croak out some kind of response and he nods and trots away. There’s a lump in your throat. Before you can make another move, a girl has bounded over and says, “Okay, Stacey, today is the day! We all gotta give our 110%! It’s Conference!” When you don’t respond, her smile vanishes and she glares at you. “This is our senior year. Our last chance. Don’t you fuck this up for us!” This girl must be the team captain.

Now the first girl is grabbing you by the wrist. You’d marvel at the tactile accuracy of the haptic suit except that you’ve entirely forgotten this is VR … that’s how good it is. It really feels like you’re being tugged toward an actual infield by a real teammate. “Wait,” you tell her. “I … I kind of need to hit the restroom.” And it’s true. Along with the butterflies in your stomach you’ve got the age-old pre-race instinct, deep down in your body, to lighten the load. You really need to go. Like, number two. It’s a strong urge—your bowels are starting to churn. Your teammate points toward the restrooms and you start jogging over there. You start to worry: am I gonna make it in time? But when you get there you remember this is only VR and there’s only so much it can do. You need an actual restroom. Merely touring the virtual one would be no more satisfying than those nighttime dreams you have of eating, where the food always vanishes as soon as you try to take a bite.

You paid good money to play this game, but that’s not important now. You lift the VR goggles off your head and prop them on your forehead, and step off the treadmill. You head over to the lobby and tell the attendant, “I need to use a restroom.”

“Now?” he says. “It can’t wait? You still have 20 minutes on your game! By the time you take off the haptic suit, do your business, and zipper yourself back in, it’ll be half over!” But his eyes are smiling: he knows how pressing your need is. You nod vigorously. “Right over there,” he points. You stride swiftly to the restroom and push through the door.

It’s not just any restroom: it’s gleaming perfection, all brushed aluminum surfaces, a big drain in the floor and state-of-the-art sprinkler system overhead. There are giant fans in the louvered windows. It’s clear the entire room is totally sanitized and refreshed between uses. The throne-like toilet even has a bidet option. You’ve never been so glad to see a public restroom in your life. And that’s when you know: today’s VR experience isn’t about the game at all. It’s about this.


According to Johns Hopkins, about 4 million Americans suffer from frequent constipation, which “is the most common gastrointestinal complaint, resulting in 2.5 million doctor visits annually.” It causes bloating, sluggishness, and abdominal pain. Treatment is challenging, because laxatives cause side effects and prolonged usage can become a problem of its own. Diet and lifestyle changes are a good long term course of action, but don’t provide much help when you’re having a bad bout … maybe you haven’t had a good bowel movement in days, and you wish there were just some silver bullet providing instant relief. Well, I just contrived one.

Of course there are details to work out, like matching up the details of the specific gameplay and script with the player’s individual history. (For example, maybe you never did a sport, but at least used to run through the neighbor’s yard and had to make it to the far fence before their dog caught you.) The game makers could create versions involving other fraught human enterprises like dating or public speaking. Fine details aside, I think you can agree that the immersive VR technology now available could provide exactly what so many people really need: a non-ingested, 100% safe, 100% effective psychological laxative. Now someone just needs to go code this game!

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