In 1965, on the tail end of an amphetamine jag, Philip K. Dick wrote a novel about virtual reality. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has a manic, Delphic prescience—it’s nearly incomprehensible—that surpasses the more robotic forecasting typical of science fiction. Ravaged by climbing temperatures, Earth in the 21st century has become uninhabitable. On Mars and Ganymede, the United Nations deposits humans to live in Earth’s bleak shadow, carving out homes from under frozen methane crystals and grayish rocks. Capitalizing on the colonists’ poor quality of life, the corporate giant Perky Pat Layouts, Inc., has developed immersive virtual-reality experiences reminiscent of Earth’s more glamorous pastimes. Most seductive is the beach template, a fantasy seaside holiday with your lithe blond girlfriend, Perky Pat.
In Dick’s novel, users “translate” themselves into virtual-reality “layouts,” where they exercise agency over their hard-bodied avatars in a state of dreamlike bliss. After entering this avatar, the novel’s protagonist awakens as Walt, dressed in an Italian-made shirt and furnished with a brand-new Jaguar XXB. It’s always Saturday here. Walt’s eyes focus on a note tacked to the wall: “This is an illusion. You are Sam Regan, a colonist on Mars. Make use of your time of translation, buddy boy. Call up Pat pronto!” Sam-now-Walt obliges, informing Pat that they’re going to the beach and that she should wear the swimsuit he likes best. “It hardly exists,” she demurs, referring to the bikini. “Actually you sort of have to have faith to believe in it.” Years later, Dick explained that he came up with the idea for Perky Pat Layouts while watching his daughters play Barbie. His wife at the time—the third of five—had exiled him to a country shack to do his writing, where, alone with a few head of sheep and cows, Dick “would have loved to see Barbie—or Perky Pat or Connie Companion—show up at the door.”
Cyberspace is accommodating to such fantasies. The on-call digital woman can be poured into the 360-degree view of any virtual-reality headset, where, operating entirely at the user’s behest, she is emotional putty. Although the term “virtual reality” wasn’t coined until 1987, Dick’s inflated corporation, peddling the immersive girlfriend experience to the masses, was no science-fiction caprice.
Virtual reality is a curious extremity. In VR, a user is the vantage point in an immersive world in which, VR developers insist, he or she may see reality through the eyes of the other, or at least in a fresh context. It may be that VR technologies are the apotheosis of the capitalist commodity: pliant enough to entertain every desire; unreal enough to maintain a certain level of hunger; and produced, for the most part, by and for white men. Everest VR guides users to the summit of the forbidding mountain. VR Roller Coaster simulates the eponymous thrill ride, while, in Adrift, gamers navigate the remains of an exploded space station. In Unity-Chan! Candy Rock Star Live Stage, a dancing, bikini-clad anime girl teases users with her swirling lengths of blond hair.
Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and Samsung Gear VR—head-mounted hardware that delivers virtual-reality media—are valued in the millions (recently, The New York Times referred to the virtual-reality industry as a “gold rush”). It’s estimated that by the end of 2016, some 2 million VR headsets will be sold; by 2025, that number could reach 122 million. A Facebook advertisement for Chase Bank’s “Freedom Unlimited” credit card features an open-mouthed white man pressing a virtual-reality headset to his face. Escapism is a fine commodity.