Last night I toured two cities in Latvia and stood on a sidewalk in Sao Paulo, Brazil, watching people walk by on a sunny afternoon. I turned around at one point to notice several people coming behind me. I hadn't heard them. After they passed, I stared into the deep blue sky, then looked down to examine cracks in the concrete.
And I did it all in my living room using a cheap pair of cardboard virtual reality glasses and my smartphone. Despite feeling a little queasy after about 10 minutes (something about the inner ear not feeling what the eyes are seeing), it was an immersive, impressive experience.
It also made me worry for the parents of the future.
If it's hard to get Johnny to stop playing Minecraft all day on the family computer while homework and chores await, imagine what it will be like when he is entirely immersed in the game, or in something else beyond the sight of everyone else, as if he were in a different world.
Virtual reality is the buzz at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which began Tuesday. My flimsy cardboard viewer soon will be hopelessly outdated as several companies prepare to release more powerful, and perhaps only slightly more expensive, versions that strap to the head and offer more vivid 360-degree displays.
As someone who covered this show regularly back in the 1980s, I know that some "wave of the future" devices end up washing ashore like seaweed-entangled refuse. But this one has a lot of momentum behind it, including Facebook's purchase two years ago of a virtual-reality startup called Oculus for $2 billion.
The world has stood on the edge of this kind of precipice before, probably many times dating back to the novelty of the penny press. Each new wave comes with a host of promises that mostly come true but are surrounded by shiny temptations that bring different realities along for the ride.
In January of 1947, the Chicago Tribune published a report that wondered where the fledgling new television industry would find its programming and who would pay for it. The report ended by quoting FCC Chairman Charles R. Denny about the great promises of TV.
"The American people want television and they need television," he said. "Its educational potential is unlimited."
By the time another FCC chairman, Newton Minow, declared television a "vast wasteland" 14 years later, he wasn't telling parents anything new. Minow also spoke of the joint accountability the public and the television industry have "for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture. …"
That was back when choices were few and screens were mainly black and white, and when censors tried to keep programming from offending public morals. All that talk of public responsibility sounds quaint now.
I don't need to relate what has happened since. Television, computers, tablets and smartphones have indeed fulfilled many of the promises made, but they also have given every user an array of choices that obliterate any greater concern for the needs of children.
Today, many of us are savvy enough to know what will come with virtual reality. Yes, there will be opportunities for surgeons to work remotely, for far-flung employees to meet in the same virtual room, for house-hunters to walk through rooms without disturbing occupants, for educational visits to historic sites and a host of other great things. But rest assured the pornography industry will latch on, as well. Immersive games will make violence more real, accentuating what the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says is evidence such things can cause children to "become numb to violence, imitate the violence, and show more aggressive behavior."
Merely confining the virtual-reality viewer to the family room won't be enough. This will require real, hands-on parenting and awareness. It will require those who parent well to hope other parents do the same.
That's enough to make me feel queasy again.