On The VR Mandala Festival, Yo La Tengo’s Chanuka Concert, and Being Young Again in VR

A few observations from my technology-life.

The Mandala Festival, in Virtual Reality

Saturday, December 4, I attended an amazing party in Virtual Reality, the Mandala Festival. The “world-designers” responsible for the party created an expansive venue for their event, with a neon forest, waterfalls, a gigantic stage with video screens, stained glass domes for the party-goers to dance beneath (see photo), and looming above it all, a ferris wheel with a beautiful view of everything, which the guests could ride. DJ Push played Psytrance live from Germany. Park benches were scattered around the grounds, so we could sit down, rest and talk.

I was young again.

As you can see from the photo, the avatars attending the event leave a lot to be desired (they are cartoonish torsos), but that’s the drawback of a technology still in its relative infancy. Better avatars take computer storage, which is limited, and more detail creates glitches.

One strange thing about the avatar problem is that one forgets about it pretty quickly; this is just how people look, here. Still, as the technology develops, and our avatars grow more realistic, we will breach the “uncanny valley,” and everything will change.

Still, it was an amazing party, a real triumph. It was fun, exciting. I was really there.

The week before, a companion and I visited a nightclub in Tokyo (well, the VR version of Tokyo). The venue was beautiful, the dance floor was crowded. At the bar, a bartender served drinks.

We could sit at a lounge area, a few steps below the dance floor, or walk onto the balcony, with its beautiful view of Tokyo.

The world-builders behind the nightclub had also designed the city streets, so we wandered through a nighttime VR version of the Japanese capital. The streets were too quiet (no car noises, and no citizens walking around other than the night-club guests), but it gave me a sense of the direction that the technology might take us. Imagine, for example, when we can really set hundreds of AI “chatbots” loose in VR, to wander through this kind of cityscape. “Chatbots” with memories and personalities, living their “lives.”

Yo La Tengo, in Real Life

A few days earlier, I attended the Yo La Tengo Chanuka concert at the Bowery Ballroom. Fred Armisen, their surprise comedy guest, provided an observational musical standup routine that, but for his bemused delivery, could have been a college musical composition class.

“Um. Every drum solo you’ve ever heard is exactly the same….” he noted. “The drummer will begin with something simple, just to throw you off.” Then he walked the audience through the elements of a drum solo.

He was probably right, but it was still funny.

But this: I had to take the subway there, and get there early to find a spot in the club. I needed a spot by the wall, to lean my 56-year-old back against. (No seats.) I didn’t have such a great view. The music was too loud for my 56-year-old eardrums, and so I stuck tissue in my ears. Some lady stood right in front of me, and her ass invaded my space.

My friends and I were the oldest people there, and everyone knew it.

I was thinking how cool this would have been in VR. No space limitations; the drinks would have been free. I could have turned down the volume on my headset. It wouldn’t have cost me $98, since the concert-promoters wouldn’t have had to secure a real “space” and paid for the band’s travel. Just as Yo La Tengo wouldn’t have had to travel anywhere, I wouldn’t have had to travel anywhere. I wouldn’t have had to get there early. I could have attended as a young man, and I would not have been embarrassed about being old.

VR is better than IRL.

My new avatar

I recently came across this photo of myself, from a 1990 trip to France.

I’m not really all that handsome in the photo. But because I was young then, I looked comparatively handsome, much more handsome than today. Compared to my current, disgusting and decrepit self, this photo is downright beautiful.

In VR, someday, I can be that guy again.

Here I am in front of my VR mansion, for example.

I was never really there, I don’t own that suit, it’s not a photo of me (it’s an image generated by an AI program based on the 1990 photograph in France) but someday, I could be that guy.

He looks pretty charismatic.

You know, technology can fix the climate crisis, cure cancer, all of that. But the side effect of technology has always been this kind of thing.

In the future, we will all lose our grip on reality. Will that be bad?

More to come.

— Steven S. Drachman


Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.