Recently I was flying the training version of the famous P-51 Mustang, a plane that was used by allied forces in World War II and by the US in the Korean War. It was among the last of the propeller-driven fighter planes, and made a big difference in taking down Adolf Hitler. I was following a river to search for a missing person, and had to not only fly along the river’s course, but keep looking at the water for them. The problem is, I don’t know how to fly airplanes very well and crashed it when I came around for another pass.
The good news? I did this in virtual reality, so no antique planes or fragile humans (especially me) were harmed. More good news? I didn’t burn the 75 gallons of fuel it would have taken for the short flight, nor did I have to drive to any of the places that offer seat time in these planes.
This isn’t a long-shot hypothetical, either. There’s a business with locations in Arizona and Texas that allows you to fly acrobatic planes equipped with laser systems to simulate aerial combat. If you hit one of your friends with a laser beam, their plane emits smoke and makes damage sounds in the cockpit, among other things to make it seem like you’re really in the sky trying to shoot each other down. You’ll probably use a whole lot more than 75 gallons of fuel doing this, plus any emissions from traveling there and back.
Flight simulator software has been around for decades, but the VR goggles provide the ability to see around 360 degrees with 3D vision that actually follows your head movements. The realism is far better than you get with a flat computer monitor, or even several of them. Add a joystick, and you get the tactile feel of controlling the plane instead of grasping at empty air or pushing buttons on a controller.
I’m not going to claim that a VR simulator can be as realistic as a real plane, but it’s a good way to have a lot of fun without spending a lot of money (well, aside from building the $4000 computer I already had and $600 VR goggles) or creating a bunch of emissions. The whole setup draws about 400 watts, so it’s not totally emissions free, but that’s a tiny drop in the bucket compared to flying real planes.
It lets you feel like you’ve done something amazing, without actually doing it. I originally bought the VR setup for the kids, but now their moms are using it more than they are.
Other Emissions-Saving Experiences VR Can Offer
When I was a teenager, my cousins and brothers would regularly organize paintball games. Instead of playing at a field, we went out in the desert near my house and gave each other small bruises. Sure, the paintball guns do emit CO2 to propel the paintballs, but only in very small amounts. The bigger problem is that almost everyone was driving 20 minutes to get there, and the cars were all like 10-15 miles per gallon. Add the shipping for the paintballs, masks, and other supplies, and there’s that much more emissions.
I had just as much fun last night fighting space pirates with a blaster pistol, though. You see, I was working as a deck hand on a cargo freighter headed for Batuu, the planet depicted in Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Pirates showed up and tried to steal our cargo, and my droid boss told me that there was a blaster pistol hidden behind one of the wall panels. A few quick spins of the electric screwdriver, and I was ready to fight them off.
Because I had set up my Oculus Quest 2 for a room-scale experience, I was able to move around pretty freely during the blaster battle. I used tactics and strategies I learned in a real police academy and the game was actually real enough that they worked. “Slicing the pie,” effective use of cover, and point shooting were all about 95% the same as the real world, and I was able to repel the pirates (and get a workout, too).
This isn’t my video, but here’s a quick look at what this was like:
Videos of VR gameplay don’t really tell the whole story, either. The sensation of 3D vision makes it look a lot less cartoonish, and having a room to walk around in gives a lot more freedom of movement than traditional video games. The hand tracking or controllers gives you the sensation of hand-eye coordination, allowing you to hold tools and other things naturally.
Obviously you can’t battle space pirates with Star Wars blasters in real life, but it would take quite a bit of construction and transportation to set up even a paintball or laser tag game of this caliber. Emissions (and costs) would be through the roof to even approach such an experience in person. My Oculus Quest 2 does it with roughly the same power draw as a smartphone, so the impact is immeasurably small in comparison.
Driver’s Ed & Racing
My oldest kid is going to be turning 15 in a few months, and that means pretty soon I’ll be sprouting a few more grey hairs as he learns to drive. Before anyone says it, no, I’m not putting my kids on transit. It’s practically non-existent where I live. I’m also not going to put their lives on hold or play cab driver for a whole family until autonomous vehicles mature. To me, cars are more than just transportation appliances, so we aren’t going to hang up the keys even when the robots can take over. The kids will get driver’s licenses, and I’m going to encourage their kids to do the same.
I am going to put the kids in EVs for their first cars, so that’s going to have to be good enough for the zealots who will inevitably try to harangue me in the comments.
But back to the topic at hand, I’m pretty nervous to put the kids in my cars for their first experiences. Repairs can be expensive, plus people could get hurt if they mess up their first few times around the block. Giving them a safe environment to learn in and get some experience would make life as a parent a lot easier.
In a few weeks, we’re going to order in a nice force feedback steering wheel, force feedback pedals, and even a 6-speed shifter that provides feedback and vibrations to simulate driving a car with a manual transmission. Most people use this hardware for racing games (and we will do that, too), but there’s also software that turns learning to drive safely into a game my older kids can play.
With the 360-degree view, realistic controls, and as much driving realism as it can give us at home, I’ll be able to help them learn the basics without using any gas or burning up hundreds of kilowatt-hours of electricity. They’ll still need to go to driver’s ed and get real wheel time eventually, but they can make a good chunk of their rookie mistakes at home instead of on the streets.
I don’t think we should all be COVID hermits the rest of our lives and experience everything virtually like people did in the movie Surrogates, but rapidly improving VR technology is making it a lot easier to experience things that used to require a lot of carbon emissions. If we even do some of those fun things virtually, we can put a dent in climate change without really losing out.
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