Haunted by the Radness of Subconscious Malls

or, Why I Liked Virtual Reality a Little Too Much

A party guest tries out the Prizmiq virtual shopping app on an Oculus Rift.

You have probably never seen a group of human beings get this excited about a photograph of a shoe. I followed an e-mail invitation to Belltown, followed some signs into an alleyway, walked in a doorway to an elevator with a sign taped to it reading “Please step into the time machine,” pressed the up button, which was labeled “To the Future,” and found myself in the penthouse offices of a Seattle startup called Prizmiq. In a conference room, there’s a good spread of cheesecake and wine and cheese and crackers. Prizmiq staff, an attractive band of young people with science-fiction names like Jacco and Amaris and Eliav and Skylr, are walking around greeting strangers and gently guiding them to an array of tablets, encouraging their guests to manipulate the sneakers on the screens with their fingers.

The shoes are brightly colored, looking as pristine as you’d find them on a new department store display. You can enlarge them, spin them on their axis, inspect the tread, investigate every single stitch, even peer inside. The light on the shoes shifts as you fiddle with them, which is the sort of nifty trick you don’t even necessarily register on a conscious level at first. I messed around with the shoes, enlarging them enough that I could see a tiny bit of dried glue oozing out between the tread and the sole. The imperfection was fascinating.

It takes me a little while to realize I’ve never seen exactly this kind of manipulable display. Prizmiq COO Eliav Cohen explains that a merchandise display with this kind of detail was impossible on a mobile device until recently. Only through a confluence of events — advances in native 3D graphics script WebGl, Apple’s iOS 8 mobile operating system, and increased RAM in phones and tablets — is this kind of experience something you can put in your pocket. And Prizmiq claims to be the first company in the world to create interactive 3D product images in an affordable and timely fashion. Cohen says that automobile companies have interactive product displays on their sites, but the process costs anywhere from seventy to a hundred thousand dollars and takes months. It takes Prizmiq twenty minutes to capture the raw images of a shoe or a glove from every possible angle. Their testing suggests that customers are less likely to return products that they buy using Prizmiq’s visualization technology, because they have a better understanding of what the products are. Prizmiq is now doing work with outdoor apparel brand Arc’teryx, and they’re talking to a number of other retailers — Nike, REI — about applying this technology to their e-commerce websites.

But I must admit that my attention is drifting away from Cohen and toward the other side of the room, where the Oculus Rift headsets are. I’ve never seen Facebook’s virtual reality helmets in real life, and a big part of the reason why I came to the party was to try out virtual reality for the first time. Cohen follows my gaze and asks if I’d like to give the virtual reality shopping experience a try. I can’t help myself: the “yeah” I respond with has way too much lust in it.

After a brief tutorial in how to use the controllers, I’ve got the Oculus Rift headset on and I’m browsing in the Prizmiq virtual store. The virtual room looks a lot like the bland conference room I’m physically sitting in: White walls, a boring carpet, harsh lighting. In front of me, six products float in place: Three types of shoes, a black Jill Milan purse, a tote bag, and a baseball bat. I’m not very good at video games and my hand-eye coordination, outside of typing, is pretty bad, so it takes a while for me to figure out how to manipulate the virtual world. In each hand, I’m holding a video game controller festooned with buttons. Those controllers manipulate my virtual hands, which are attached to veiny forearms floating between me and the products. The arms end in round stumps marked with lines, like I’m an amputee whose entire body has been removed. If I push certain buttons, the hand points to different targets in the virtual room. If I pull a trigger on the controller, the target — one of the shoes — flies into my virtual hand. If I pull another trigger, the hand grabs onto the shoe and allows me to move it around. In virtual reality, the shoe looks just as realistic as it does on the tablets, and rather than pinching to zoom, I can enlarge it by bringing my hand closer to my face. This fictional shoe is somehow twenty times more interesting than the real shoe in the next room over. I could stare at it for hours.

Around me, Prizmiq staff talk up other guests at the party, and the dissonance between my ears, which hear a room full of people, and my eyes, which see an empty room, is a little jarring. Off to the side of my field of vision, there’s a menu with an array of location settings on it: GYM, ALPINE, SPACE. I try to change backgrounds to SPACE — because why wouldn’t you? — and a technician tells me that they had to disable the space background, because it was making people sick to their stomachs. Instead, the program sends me automatically to the gym. It looks like I’m standing on a basketball court. Off against one wall are some chairs. When I look up, I can see rafters and lights. When I look down, I can see the virtual “chair” my virtual “self” is supposed to be sitting in. It’s made to look like leather. My hands grab the bat and pull it close to me. It looks like a baseball bat. There’s a logo on the bottom of the handle. I try to hit myself in the face with it, but it just passes through me, like I’m a ghost. For that split second when the bat is flying at me, something in my brain tries to warn me that my body is in danger. I have to ignore it. It’s not easy.

I switch to the ALPINE setting, and all of a sudden I’m sitting on a snowy mountaintop, with pixelated pine trees in the distance. Snow is falling around me. When I look up, I can see the snow falling down, but I also see nothing but blue skies (and a single small black circle at the very top of the sky, which intrudes like a boom mic falling into the top of a movie frame). The products are in front of me, and so I grab the purse and inspect it as the snow falls all around. The handles don’t move like real purse handles would, of course, but beside that it looks like a reasonable facsimile of the Jill Milan bag sitting on a table in the other room. It’s a store selling brand name products in the middle of a fake wilderness. I cannot begin to describe how happy this experience makes me feel.

A poster in Prizmiq’s offices.

After two rounds in the virtual store, I’m introduced to Prizmiq CEO Darrick Morrison, a friendly looking bearded man who almost immediately describes himself as a “burner.” Morrison puts out a full-on hippie vibe; his Twitter bio reads, in its entirety, “Captain of the Cosmonautilus, proud tribesman of the Cosmic Love Tribe, Rocker of shinyfunkyshit, emitter of warm vibes, allaboutcommunity, a soulfriendbrother.” He tells me how Prizmiq is interested in “that magical radness factor” as a core institutional concept, that the pursuit of being rad is more important than just about anything else. I compliment Morrison on his suit, a shiny gray number, and he tells me he bought it two weeks ago for tonight’s party, then pulls up his trouser leg to show me that underneath his suit he’s wearing what looks like rainbow tie-dyed long johns.

It’s a little jarring to me when Morrison switches from the talk about radness and building community to discussion of brands and product experiences, but he brings the same energy to both topics. And then he gets really excited when he starts talking about virtual reality. He makes distinctions between the virtual reality of Oculus Rift, the augmented reality of recent Google purchase Magic Leap, and what he calls “reality-reality.” Morrison says he’s not sure the world is ready for Magic Leap, that photorealistic augmented reality might be too much for people to handle, but he is absolutely confident that when the tech improves and when the public interest increases, these technologies will change the world.

“The whole world is going to be three-dimensionalized,” Morrison tells me. He thinks once the technology catches up to the vision of virtual reality, there will be a rush to copy the real world — not just products for sale, but locations and, well, everything — into the virtual one. He sees Prizmiq’s 3D visualization as an integral part of that transition. Part of the reason he’s throwing this party is to let people know that they need to “wrap their minds around what’s coming.” He says once people try the Oculus Rift they get an inkling of what he means, even though it’s probably a year or two, at least, from being truly effective. He’s an evangelist for the coming virtual world.

And I can understand why. I’ve heard virtual reality compared to a drug, and using the Oculus Rift made that comparison immediately clear. It’s not so much that my consciousness reached a higher plane of awareness or anything like that; it’s that virtual reality is addictive. I just finished two short expeditions and I’m already hankering for another hit. I want to float among the quasars and black holes while fondling a neon pair of Nikes in my avatar hands. I want to shop for aluminum siding in an imaginary Home Depot made to look like the warrior-heaven of Valhalla. Give me a grocery store in the form of a haunted castle under siege by an army of molten lava beasts, and I will never want to shop anywhere else.

I’m pretty sure working at a mall as soon as I graduated from high school made weird, permanent changes to my brain. The most immediate and obvious sign at the time that my synapses were being forcefully manipulated by my surroundings was the fact that pretty much every night, I’d dream about malls. And I’d walk around those malls, and I’d usually come across a display of something inexplicable. Most times, they looked like strangely shaped glass bottles filled with colored water, but they weren’t sodas. They weren’t food, and they weren’t just art objects. They served some purpose that I couldn’t understand, and when I’d look at them, the entirety of my soul would start salivating with need. I wanted those bottles, and I couldn’t really explain why, but I’d wake up filled with longing. And then I’d go to work at the real mall, and it was always depressing when reality never reached the aspirational level of the mall in my subconscious. When I tried to describe my dreams to my friends, I had to name the bottles of colored water something as a shorthand, so I started calling them Good Product. Good Product became an obsession with me. I’d spend many of my waking hours thinking about it and trying to figure out how to fill that desire.

I think now that Good Product was my mind’s way of wrestling with the difference between reality and fantasy, with the desire for something and the inevitable letdown that arrives when the experience never quite lives up to the sales pitch. When I stopped working at malls, my Good Product dreams went away, but I still feel that itch sometimes when I go to malls, that sense that just around the corner is something that would completely change me and my understanding of the universe. That raw need is a comfort to me, now; sometimes I go to malls just so I can feel that haunting little twinge, deep down inside. It helps me think about what I want and what I need, and what the difference between those two things can be.

(This story was originally published on Slog, The Stranger’s blog, on Friday, December 5th, 2014.)

Political writer at Civic Ventures. Co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books. Author of comics including PLANET OF THE NERDS.

Political writer at Civic Ventures. Co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books. Author of comics including PLANET OF THE NERDS.