The May holiday weekends in Canada and the United States serve as unofficial kickoffs to summer. We camp in the outdoors, open up our summer vacation properties, or just kick back with cool beverages in the backyard, all to celebrate not being cooped up in the house by Winter’s nastiness. Soon it will be full-on summer vacation time: wilderness excursions for the adventurous, campground stays for those with kids, and long road trips for those who have kids and are very brave, optimistic, or just forgetful.
But there are lots of reasons to believe that the ‘vacation trip’ might soon become a thing of the past. Let’s face it, the concept of the individual family car is unsustainable over the long term because of climate change and the dwindling supply of oil. And even with a robust infrastructure of charging stations for electric cars, with power supplied by solar and wind farms, I think the tradition of the road trip will fade.
Other forms of vacation transportation face the same challenges. Aircraft burn huge amounts of fuel and are shameful polluters. Cruise ships too. Passenger trains might enjoy a resurgence of popularity, but the track infrastructure in North America has been neglected for years and I’d be surprised to see any appetite to rebuild it (unless rail interests here suddenly become willing to learn from Europe and Japan). Even highly-efficient transit systems like Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop (a super-high-speed magnetically-levitated train traveling in an enclosed tunnel at near-vacuum) would be useful for reaching a destination but hardly a means to enjoy the journey.
Wait—as a science fiction writer, shouldn’t I be touting the dream of space tourism? Second honeymoon jaunts to luxury hotels on the Moon or Mars?
With current technology, and any improvements of it that we can reliably predict, that’s not going to be possible for any but the ultra-ultra-wealthy. Far too wasteful of energy. But also too slow to appeal to many people anyway. Being cooped up for days, weeks, or months with nothing to look at but black space would make the worst road trip to Disney World look like heaven (space crews will have to keep busy or they’ll go nuts).
But, you say, we all need a change of scenery, so what’s the alternative?
Maybe the reality is…we should look to virtual reality. After all, is it really necessary for our body to sit around on a beach in Jamaica as long as our mind thinks we are? The experience is what’s important, and we experience the world through our senses. Those can be fooled. The makers of the VR headset Oculus Rift have finally released their consumer version, bringing a whole new realism to gaming and, potentially, many other forms of entertainment. Oculus features extremely high definition screens with extra peripheral detail for each eye and awesome refresh rates to trick our brains into seeing a seamless visual environment. Of course, the audio component—precision surround sound—has been available for years. As for the sense of touch, the network of nerves throughout our skin isn’t the same all over our bodies—it’s highly concentrated in our hands and face, and much less sensitive elsewhere. Gamers already experience sensory feedback systems that use vibrating pads in gloves and pedals to simulate touch, and there’s lots of room for refinement there. The rest of the body could probably be tricked by systems of heating and cooling pads, plus air-driven pressure points inflated and deflated like a fighter pilot’s flight suit (used to regulate blood circulation during high-g manoeuvres, but certainly adaptable to other uses). Something as crude as a motion chair or platform wouldn’t be needed except for more active pursuits like waterskiing or hang-gliding.
The sense of smell isn’t hard to fool with aerosol systems, and taste really only comes into play when we eat or drink. So we make sure there’s a supply of real margaritas on hand (or any other taste treat, provided by the staff of a VR vacation emporium, perhaps in your favourite shopping mall).
The possibilities mentioned above don’t even include the progress being made in direct brain-computer interfaces. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been focusing heavily on implantable neural interfaces in recent years. Brown University’s BrainGate project is making great progress in allowing paralyzed people to control technical devices with only their thoughts. The more precisely we can use EEGs and Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy to sense the activities of greater numbers of brain cells, the more ability we’ll have to affect a specialized environment directly with our minds, so we won’t be dependent on just witnessing some software designer’s idea of a perfect vacation, but will be able to create our own. Eventually, sending signals into precise brain centres, we’ll be able to temporarily replace the input from our senses and trick our brain into accepting something wholly fictional as reality.
At some point (in the 23rd or 24th centuries?) we might combine that direct brain interface with projection technology and produce something like Star Trek’s holosuites. But in the meantime, these true virtual reality technologies will be developed long before a fast and cost-effective means of space travel. Plan to holiday on Mars from the comfort of your own living room (you won’t even have to get shots!)
For now, after a hard blog-writing session, I’ll give my brain a vacation that fits my budget: a cool brew and a few hours in front of the Scenery Channel.