While simulated warfare is an obvious avenue of VR exploitation, Somerson predicts one of the most popular applications of VR will be fake sports, because men who play these games often find sports interesting. In virtual baseball, you might one day find yourself pitching to a virtual Babe Ruth. But things are endlessly tailorable—you could have the Babe pitch to the Babe, have him called out on strikes by an ump with the Babe's face, and have 40,000 spectators, all of them Babes, yelling, "Throw the bum out."
Someday. Judging from the Cyberthon, the state of VR wizardry is still a mite medieval. The imagery is too cartoonish, and there's a slight delay before the virtual world responds to human interaction. VR's defenders insist more powerful computers will fill in the gaps. "In 30 years you'll be able to completely fool your brain into believing what you're seeing is real," says Trip Hawkins, the mind behind such conventional computer games as John Madden Football. "You'll be able to suspend disbelief indefinitely."
VR detractors say the electronics featured at the Cyberthon and at BattleTech are no different from the entertainment innovations that preceded them and will, like the rest, soon become outmoded. Who plays Pac-Man today? Then there's the philosophical argument that all reality, after all, is virtual, and can be enjoyed as such. "Believe me," says Leary. "There are some things only the human body can do. For all its magical properties, virtual reality will never replace sweat."
Still, since opening last July, the Battle-Tech outpost has sold more than 150,000 tickets. "It's gets so real, it's scary," says Hitman, nom de guerre for a gold card-carrying ex-Marine. "It reminded me a lot of basic training. At first I'd imagine I was a 31st-century mercenary running search-and-destroy missions. I spent all my spare time at BattleTech, all my spare change. But I kicked the habit."
Hitman still plays 10 games a week.
"I could quit anytime I want," he insists. "I could quit anytime I want."